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This year is a critical one for Zimbabwe. The Inclusive Government that has ruled the country since February 2009 and provided some semblance of economic and political stability, will come to an end. In its place will be a government formed exclusively by either Zanu PF or MDC-T. A 16 March referendum on a new constitution received a massive “yes” vote, paving the way for elections in the next few months. In the meantime, evidence recently published shows that the country’s controversial land reform programme has enabled black farmers to reach, in just 12 years, the same level of production white farmers achieved before the reforms.
Osei Boateng writes.
“Why can’t President Robert Mugabe, who celebrated his 89th birthday on 21 February 2013, and who has been in power for 33 unbroken years, just go home and leave a younger head to continue from where he leaves?” has become the most popular question this side of the elections. “Why is he running again?” is the obligatory second part of the question.
It is a legitimate question and a half whose answer, in normal circumstances, should not be difficult to give. Except that what has happened in Zimbabwe in the past 13 years – when the controversial land reform programme began in 2000 – has not been normal. Which means that the retirement of the man the Zimbabwean “nationalists” see as the “anchor of the country” has become a difficult proposition. It becomes even more complicated when viewed against the background of the actions taken in the past 13 years by certain Western nations – with Britain and the USA in the lead – to effect regime-change in Zimbabwe, whose sole goal has been to reverse the land reform programme and any gains achieved thereof.
In this regard, the antics of the governments of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the former American President George W. Bush, including supporting an abortive coup plot in Zimbabwe in 2007, effectively became a kiss of death for the locals seeking change in Zimbabwe, especially Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) which was the main beneficiary of the Western penetration actions.
To the “nationalists”, what has happened, and is still happening, in Zimbabwe since 2000 is a “war without guns” – a war, they say, which is being fought not only to safeguard the honour, integrity and sovereignty of the nation, but also a war to resolve once and for all the warped land question in the country in favour of the majority black people whose ancestral land was taken by force of arms by the white colonial governments in the century before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.
It is also a war to keep the ownership of the mineral and other resources of the country in the hands of its people – and that “war”, to them, is not yet over. As such the only man whose track record gives them comfort to lead the last charge and finish the job, happens to be the man the opposition wants to retire – President Mugabe. Thus, despite his great age – for an African – the “nationalists” say Mugabe is still needed for the last throw of the dice, at least for one more term of 5 years, in order to make absolutely sure that the gains of the “war” will not be reversed by outside forces using local agents.
As one Zanu PF insider told New African last year: “We want Mugabe to run again, because we don’t have a strong enough candidate to beat Morgan Tsvangirai.”
President Mugabe himself had hinted at it in an interview published by New African in July 2011: “The party needs me,” he said at the time, “and we should not create weak points within the party. We must remain solid and in full gear. Once you have a change, if we had it now for example, a new man or a new woman, that might destroy the party for a while as it goes through transition.
“Any new leader needs time to consolidate, so we don’t want to take risks at all. No risks at this time because there are people who have regime change as their objective.
Blair was calling for it. His successors … we haven’t heard the voice of [Prime Minister David] Cameron yet. But there is that other man with a round head … what’s his name? Hague, William Hague [the current British foreign secretary]. He seems very critical of us and seems to be on to regime change.”
Turning to what has become a major talking point in the last decade – his age and state of health, Mugabe said: “The body says what it says it is … I continue to have checks every six months. The doctors say that I am okay and some are surprised with my bone structure. They say they are the bones of someone who is 40. I suppose it is the exercise [he has been a gym fanatic all his life]. “I also take calcium every day. At this age you must take calcium, and I continue to exercise. I fall sick if I don’t exercise. You can see it when I don’t; you will say he is down today. For now, I feel as good as my age says I must be. My age says I am not yet old at 87 [two years ago when the interview was published]. My body is saying the counting doesn’t end at 87 – at least you must get to 100.”
Which makes the coming election an interesting one. Like Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai will be running for the last time as leader of the MDC-T party, which will surely replace him if he loses again. He has already lost twice to Mugabe, in 2002 and 2008.
Unfortunately for him, conditions in the country today are not particularly in the MDC-T’s favour as they were in 2008, when Tsvangirai defeated Mugabe in the first round of the election, winning 47% of the vote to Mugabe’s 43%, and then boycotted the run-off.
That was Tsvangirai’s best chance to live in State House as 2008 was the highest point of the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, when life was so hard to live and people were so prepared to vote with their stomachs that the former British foreign secretary Robin Cook’s earlier apocalyptic warning that if Zanu PF did not “get rid of Mugabe, what will hit you will make your people stone you in the street”, appeared to be coming true. This time round, conditions in the country have vastly improved, especially after the introduction of the US dollar as the medium of exchange in January 2009, a month before the Inclusive Government was inaugurated. Since then, the economy has been on the up and up, and for most people, life is a lot easier now than in 2008, though unemployment is still high and wages are still too low.
A major disadvantage to the MDC-T is that the electorate has had the chance to see them in action in government, where they have been ensnared by the usual evils – corruption and self-aggrandisement. As their performance has not always been great, the novelty factor has worn out.
On the other hand, Zanu PF has learnt its lessons from 2008. President Mugabe has since acknowledged that “2008 was our worst year of division … and so we lost a lot of votes. Anyway, we have done our postmortem… It’s like football and cricket and all games. You don’t field anyone just to give them a chance. You field the best.” The period of the Inclusive Government has also given Zanu PF the chance to breathe, regroup, and refresh itself. The party is now in a better shape to contest an election than in 2008. Thus, the MDC will have to do more this time to defeat Mugabe and his Zanu PF.
A major selling point in the coming elections will be land reform and the gains achieved so far. Interestingly, 6 April 2013 will mark exactly 13 years since Zimbabwe’s controversial fast track land reform began. On that fateful day, the country’s war veterans, long frustrated by what they saw as their government’s interminable feet-dragging over land redistribution, took matters into their own hands and forcibly seized some white farmlands.
That single action, initially unsupported by the Zanu PF government (President Mugabe was at the time visiting Cuba), later snowballed into a fast track land reform programme that dragged the government, white farmers, and Western governments (led by Britain and USA) into a maelstrom. In hindsight, it was perhaps impolitic for the Western countries to try to frustrate, even stop, the land reform programme the way they did, knowing that land reform is necessary if countries suffering from skewed land tenure systems are to achieve prosperity for all.
There were plenty of examples to look at. For instance, one of the first things the USA did in Japan after World War II (when, between August 1945 and 1949, Washington virtually ran Japan under an army of American administrators led by General Douglas MacArthur), was to redistribute the land. That paved the way for Japan’s economic miracle of the following decades. With success in Japan, America shuffled Gen MacArthur to Taiwan to sort out the island-nation after Chiang Kai-shek’s Koumitang government had been defeated by the Chinese communists in 1949. Again, as in Japan, one of the first things Gen MacArthur did in Taiwan was to redistribute the land, which became the foundation for Taiwan’s economic miracle of the last 60 years. Two other land-reform successes have occurred in South Korea and China, currently two of the world’s most prosperous nations.
But when Zimbabwe took the same path as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China had trodden before it, to redistribute its land 13 years ago, Gen MacArthur’s country, the USA, became one of the leading opponents of the land reform – because this time white people were losing part of their lands to black people.
So what is the score 13 years after that great event? Has Zimbabwe’s land reform been positive or negative? According to a new book, the answer is “yes”, it has been a success, and impressively so, considering the relatively short time it has taken black Zimbabwean farmers to come this far, in spite of the many hurdles thrown in their way. The book, Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land, published by Stylus (based in Sterling, Virginia, USA) was launched in London in late January. It is the work of three authors: Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa, and Teresa Smart.
Hanlon, author of Beggar Thy Neigbours and other books, was born in the USA and is now a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics. Jeanette Manjengwa is a black Zimbabwean woman and deputy director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Zimbabwe; while Teresa Smart, a white woman, is a visiting fellow at London University’s Institute of Education.
Together, the three authors have decades of experience of Zimbabwe. Their fieldwork for the book was done in the country’s Mashonaland Central and Mashonaland East provinces in 2010 and 2011. And their verdict is emphatic, a shot in the arm for Mugabe and Zanu PF in the run-up to the elections.
According to the authors: “Agrarian reform is a slow process and it takes a generation for new farmers to be fully productive. [However], a decade after [land reform began], Zimbabwe’s agricultural production has largely returned to the 1990s level [and] small-scale black farmers now produce together almost as much tobacco as the big white farmers once did.”
The authors add an important caveat:
“Land reform will not be reversed,” they say matter of factly: “The Global Political Agreement [that set up the Inclusive Government between Zanu PF and the two formations of the MDC in 2009] includes the phrase, ‘accepting the irreversibility of said land acquisitions and redistribution’, and 2 million new occupants would not allow any change now.”
This is what the Zimbabwean “nationalists” call “consolidation”, which has always been part of President Mugabe’s strategy – to spread land reform to the maximum number of Zimbabweans and make it impossible for any future government to reverse it. And this is exactly what has happened. “It has been hard work,” says Hanlon and his two colleagues, “and the new farmers started out in conditions that were not always propitious… Post-land reform Zimbabwe has been subject to [economic] sanctions and a major cut in foreign aid, and the government managed its response badly, opting to print money, which led to hyperinflation in 2007 and 2008.”
Interestingly, contrary to what the authors found on the ground during their fieldwork, Eddie Cross, a white MP and policy coordinator general of the MDC-T party, claimed in April 2011 that white farms had been “invaded and occupied by [a] ragtag collection of people” who are just “squatters”, and that “the majority of these farms have become largely defunct, their homesteads and farm buildings derelict and their arable lands have returned to bush”. Eddie Cross is not alone in holding this view; many international agencies and governments say the same thing. But Hanlon and his co-authors are categorical: “We have seen something different. We visited A2 farmers who are major commercial farmers turning over more than $100,000 per year, and A1 commercial farmers with a few hectares but who are making a profit of more than $10,000 per year and who are more productive than the white farmers they replaced.
“To be sure, we have also seen both A1 and A2 farms that are unused or underused. Just as there was a spectrum of white farmers, some good, some bad, and most in the middle, there is also a spectrum of resettlement farmers. But, on average, in just a decade, the new farmers have caught up with the white farmers’ production. “It is widely estimated that new farmers take a generation to reach full production, and this was the case with both the white farmers and the first land reform farmers [in the early 1980s], so the new farmers can be expected to develop significantly in the next decade.”
To press the point home, the three authors, in their book, implore Eddie Cross to visit Craigengower Farm. “Driving into the old white farm compound, one arrives at a hub of activity,” the authors say. “Every building is in use – grain and machinery stores, houses for some farmers, and a house for the agricultural extension officer who serves this and two other farms. Indeed, all he [Eddie Cross] needs to do is to use Google Maps satellite pictures to show how intensively Craigengower is used. But Eddie is right about one thing. One item in the compound is derelict: the old swimming pool is empty and filled with weeds.”
Putting it in context
To put Eddie Cross’s view in context, the authors provide statistics to show that “white farmers who were given land in the 1940s and 1950s were sent on courses by the colonial government or forced to do a oneor two-year apprenticeship on a farm before they could occupy their land. [But] despite not having the support given to their white predecessors, land-reform farmers [since 2000] have made substantial investments using their own money rather than outside investment or loans,” the authors add. Zimbabwe now holds the record of implementing the largest land reform in Africa, in which “6,000 white farmers have been replaced by 245,000 black farmers,” say Hanlon et al. “These are ordinary poor people who have become more productive farmers … and [who] already grow 40% of the country’s tobacco, and 49% of its maize.”
According to the authors, what impresses most is “walking into living rooms of [black] farmers to find the furniture has been moved out and the room filled with sacks of maize and groundnuts, or noting that money has been used to buy machinery rather than new furniture or a fancy car. “The final impression is just how quickly Zimbabweans are recovering from the hyperinflation era, and how outsiders (even Zimbabweans abroad) have missed that change. Thus, outside commentators tend to underestimate two aspects of Zimbabwe. The first is the tie to the land and farming, even for academics and elites. The other is the speed of the recovery under dollarisation, itself a testament to the resilience and creativity of Zimbabweans, but also showing that the economic crisis of 2005-08 was caused by hyperinflation and not land reform.”
Then comes the big hitter: “Zimbabwe’s land reform has not been neat, and huge problems remain,” the authors concede. “But 245,000 new farmers have received land, and most of them are farming it. They have raised their own standard of living: have already reached the production levels of their former white farmers; and, with a bit of support, are ready to substantially increase that production.
“In 1952, [the Rhodesian prime minister] Godfrey Huggins, said: ‘The ultimate possessors of the land will be the people who can make the best use of it’. Sixty years later, this has come to pass.”
So who got the land? President Mugabe’s government set out two models. An A1 model for small-scale farmers divided a typical white farm into about 40 small farms, averaging 6 hectares each in the areas of best land, and larger plots in cattle areas. For large-scale commercial farming, an A2 model split a typical white farm into 4 or 6 farms, averaging 50-70 hectares each in the best areas.
As Hanlon and his co-authors confirm, A1 farms initially largely went to people who had forcibly seized and occupied white farms, and later to people who had applied for such farms. “Plots were formally marked out, and farmers have permits or letters from the government giving them the right to occupy the plot. Under the A1 scheme, 146,000 families received land,” the authors say. A2 farms required a much more complex process, with a formal business plan and evidence of farming skills and some capital.
“Broadly speaking,” the authors report, “many A2 farmers have urban links because they were able to mortgage properties such as a Harare house. Nearly 23,000 families received A2 farms. Including the first resettlement [in the 1980s], 245,000 resettlement farm families now have 40% of the farmland.”
The idea behind the A2 model was to create large black commercial farmers, much in the mode of the colonial white government when it created white commercial farmers. Opponents of Zimbabwe’s land reform regularly assert that large amounts of land (often cited as 40%) have gone to “Mugabe’s cronies”. But Hanlon and his coauthors found this to be untrue. According to them, since Zimbabwe’s independence, a total of 13.5 million hectares of former white land have been transferred to black farmers. “Of that, 9.5 million hectares went to smallholders – 1980s resettlement and A1 farmers. Another 3 million hectares (22%) went to small A2 farmers, and one million hectares (7%) went to large A2 farmers and black, large-scale commercial farmers.”
Explaining further, Hanlon and his co-authors say: “Since independence, Zimbabwe has followed the colonial dual agricultural strategy of big, commercial farms and smallholders. Although A2 farms are smaller than the old white farms, they are still large and capital-intensive, and applicants had to prove that they had money to invest. Many of the holders on the black, large-scale commercial farms bought their farms. By definition, this is an elite, these are relatively well-off or even wealthy people. One cannot support continuation of large-scale commercial farming, as most of the international community does, and then object that the farms are in the hands of an elite.”
The authors continue: “Just as in the colonial era the white regime gave land as rewards to supporters, the independence government has done the same thing. Indeed, politics in most countries (including Europe and United States) has a certain amount of patronage, rewarding key supporters of winning political parties.
“[Regarding] both A2 and whole farms, being a Zanu PF member and having friends among the right people must have helped. But does this make all 23,000 A2 and large-scale farmers ‘Mugabe’s cronies’? We are not willing to dismiss such a large group of people so easily, even though some people at the top have multiple farms that are among the largest and best.” According to the authors, surveys, so far, have shown that “130 A2 farms (about 1.2% of all A2 farms), went to people in the Office of the President and Cabinet, and another 38 farms went to ministers. And among the large farms that have been leased to individual farmers by the state, there are quite a sprinkling of generals, ministers, judges, and others with obvious political or military links. And several hundred people have multiple farms or farms that are larger than the minimum sizes set in 2001. “It is important to remember, however, that self-funded, large-scale farming ensures that all big farmers are in the elite.
But not all are ‘cronies’. For example, there are significant numbers of agronomists and professional farmers as well as engineers, doctors, and other professionals. We estimate that less than 5% of new farmers with under 10% of the land are ‘cronies’.”
The land question
To put matters in context, the authors provide a comprehensive history of the land question in Zimbabwe, right from 1893 when Cecil Rhodes’ British South African Company (BSAC) ruled what became Zimbabwe in 1980 as a commercial company until Queen Victoria [of Britain] granted the BSAC a royal charter in 1898, and the territory gained self-governing dominion status in 1923.
From then on, increasing racial segregation was imposed by the white governments, which culminated in the Land Apportionment Act of 1930. During the post-World War II period (1945-55), the Rhodesian government pushed for a major migration of “Europeans” into the country, which led to the eviction of more than 100,000 black Zimbabweans from what was then called “European land”. Tens of thousands of British World War II veterans moved to Rhodesia, and those who wanted to farm were given free land by the colonial government. In addition, “roads were built to the farms. Seed, fertiliser, and farm implements were provided by the government, and 40 hectares of land were ploughed for the farmers before they arrived,” report Hanlon and his coauthors. “Those who had no farming experience at all were forced to undergo two years of training in farming and financial management. And much of the land given to them was already occupied by African farmers, so the blacks were forced off – often loaded into lorries and simply dumped far away, while their homes were burned.” One of the white farmers was a certain Spitfire pilot, Ian Smith, who admitted in his memoirs that the new land given to him by the colonial government had been occupied by black “squatters”. Smith went on to rule Rhodesia, announce a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain in 1965, and fight a brutal war to keep Rhodesia white-ruled.
As the dispossessions continued in the late 1950s, Rhodesia’s then prime minster, Garfield Todd, tried to make a few concessions to the Africans, but as Hanlon & Co put it, “he was removed as prime minister in 1958 for being too ‘pro-African’.” Seven years earlier (between 1951-57), the colonial government had introduced an “assisted passage scheme” targeted in particular at retired members of the British armed forces, who were placed on farms.
As a result, Rhodesia’s white population jumped from 80,500 in 1945 to 219,000 by 1960. Most went to the cities, but the number of “European men working or owning farms almost doubled from 4,673 in 1945 to 8,632 in 1960.”
In spite of the generous help given to the white farmers by the colonial government, “not much of the land was used,” Hanlon and his colleagues point out. Barry Floyd, who had worked for the Rhodesian government as a land development officer in the African reserves, wrote in the Journal of the American Geographical Society in 1962 that “as late as 1955, some 4,000 Africans were evicted from the European area. Their abandoned croplands were sometimes farmed after their removal but as often as not lay idle.”
Hanlon and his co-authors stress that:“The scandal of white farming was how little land was actually being used, even as black farmers were being packed ever more tightly into the Tribal Trust Lands. Malcolm Rifkind [who in later life would become Britain’s foreign secretary] in his 1968 thesis on Rhodesian land, notes that the Rhodesian authorities themselves complained about how little land was being used. A parliamentary committee in 1957 concluded that only 6% to 12% of arable European land was actually being farmed.”
Various estimates have since been made of land use, one of which, in 1976, done by Roger Riddell, author of The Land Question, from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, calculated that only 15% of potentially arable European land was being cultivated.
However, from the 1950s, white farmers were encouraged to produce export crops, especially tobacco. But when international sanctions were imposed on Rhodesia after Ian Smith declared UDI in 1965, white farmers were persuaded to move away from tobacco and into maize, cattle, and cotton.
“To support white farmers responding to sanctions, the UDI government provided subsidies and loans estimated at $12,000 per farm per year in the mid-1970s, the equivalent of approximately $40,000 per farm per year today.”
Despite all the government help, the Rhodesian National Farmers Union found in 1977 that 30% of all farms were insolvent – kept alive by loans, price supports, and subsidies. Riddell added that in the 1975-76 season, 60% of white farms (4,023 of 6,682) were not profitable enough to qualify for income tax, while 52% of all taxable income was accounted for by just 271 white farms.
The situation today
The authors report that since land reform began in 2000, the 2007-08 season had been the worst, with food production down to 37% of the 1990s average. In the 2009-10 season, however, the first season under dollarisation, food production returned to 79% of the 1990s average. And though the 2010-11 season saw some variable rain in January, which caused a loss of 10% of maize, food production was 83% of the 1990s average.
“The recovery has been so rapid that in July 2011, Finance Minister Tendai Biti reimposed import duties of 10% to 25% on foodstuffs such as maize meal and cooking oil, to protect local producers. The duties had been suspended in 2003 when not enough food was being grown and local food-processing industries were not producing.” Before land reform, tobacco was the most profitable crop for white farmers, who always stressed that it needed high skills to produce successfully. Today, however, the number of black smallholders growing tobacco has increased from a few hundred to 53,000, and production is returning to former levels.
The authors have the last word: “We cannot give a totally up-to-date picture,” they say, “but we believe that the new farmers are now using much more than the one third of the land once worked by the white farmers, although they have not yet reached the intensity of those farmers – meaning that production is already returning to the 1990s levels because of the more extensive land use.”
They continue: “This is not a book about what might have been, could have been, or should have been. Instead, this is a book about Zimbabwe’s land reform in 2011 and about the new farmers on the ground –about their successes and failures, their hopes and prospects. Zimbabwe has taken back its land, and the new occupants will not allow that land reform to be reversed.”
(Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land, by Joseph Hanlon, Jeanette Manjengwa, and Teresa Smart is published by Stylus Publishing, Virginia, USA. ISBN: 978-1-56549-520-3)
Review by Jacob K. Lupai
The book, The Genesis of Political Consciousness in South Sudan by Arop Madut-Arop, is fascinating. It is a brilliant piece of work on modern history of South Sudan. The book is wealth of information that should be of great interest to students of history, to researchers and indeed to those who are interested in learning in depth about the nascent country that is the 193th Member of the United Nations and the 54th of the African Union.
The author is meticulous in presenting primary information on modern history of South Sudan without being politically biased. As a professional he bases his discussion on facts gathered through credible research.
The book is well structured. It illustrates vividly the colonial past, political development, the liberation struggle and ultimately independence to South Sudan. The book is commendable as it provides the reader with wealth of information to be knowledgeable about the political development of South Sudan from prehistoric times to what it is now, a modern independent nation. It is original in piecing together information on modern history of South Sudan. The book is also a piece of brilliant journalism and deserves a high commendation for its contribution to knowledge.
It can be emphsised that the book is a must to students of social and political studies, and for research for higher degrees. The book is also a must to professionals. It is therefore highly recommended for public libraries to enable individuals to increase their knowledge of political development of South Sudan. In addition copies of the book are recommended to be stocked in libraries of institutions of higher studies for the benefit of students, teaching staff and researchers.
As little exists in the way of documentation for the history of South Sudan until the introduction of Turkiya (1821-85) in the old Sudan, the book is particularly a masterpiece on social and political development of South Sudan from the land where its people were raided for slaves by the Arabs to the land of proud people who fought fiercely against all brutal actions for colonization and marginalization.
Finally the book brings the reader with interest in South Sudan and the well-wisher to a happy ending by describing the emerging of South Sudan, at last, as a free and independent nation after protracted long and bitter armed struggle against marginalisation.
Calgary, Alberta — Many people take the color used to describe them for their essence, their humanity. They don’t see it only as mere description, whether fitting or vilifying. Why are people proud of their descriptions (color) instead of their true essence: humanity? How would we call someone who’s simply proud of his/her Race?
South Sudanese prolific author and poet, Kuir ë Garang, launches his sixth book, Is ‘Black’ Really Beautiful? Dehumanizing and Intentional Ethics of Descriptions and Vilifying Philosophies of Naming, on April 6, 2013 in Forest Lawn Library (12.00 pm – 2.00 pm). The launch will showcase the book to the Canadian public and present a new angle through which Canadians should tackle Racism.
Racism is a phenomenon we all hate and would want to eliminate. However, long after the end of slavery, racial segregation and colonialism, Racism still shows its face in our everyday lives. This book redefines Racism and the essence of Color as related to people, and present a new angle through which our fight against Racism can be facilitated.
The book humbles those who harbor ‘racist’ feelings and gives a voice to those whose racism has been a continuous burden. The book also subjects everyone to self-re-evaluation in an attempt to humble humanity. A strongly inculcated and meaningful humanity can only be underlined by real humility. A humble self doesn’t discriminate.
The book is now available for sale on all online retail stores and will soon be available in book stores. The retail price of the book is 17.95 CAD.
Kuir ë Garang moved from Sudan to Canada in 2002 after having lived as a refugee in different African countries. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and has taken a number of graduate courses at University of Calgary. He has strong grasp of philosophy and Race issues.
Having lived in Sudan under religious and racial discrimination and moved to Canada to be subjected to some form of racial biases, Kuir has a wealth of information to share. Kuir also has over four years of experience working with immigrants from different racial, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. He’s now published six books and he’s editing two more manuscripts.
His personal experiences in racially diverse environments, his philosophical training and his work with immigrants of all races and religions furnishes him with information that will be valuable to Canadians and the world in general.
For more information about the book and the author, visit www. kuirthiy.info
Tell me about the dinner party at which the writer James Baldwin and the cartoonist Jules Feiffer first encouraged you to write your first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Well, I don’t know if it was a dinner party! Martin Luther King had been killed, on my birthday, and I had been planning a birthday party. I had planned to join him after my birthday. [His death] shocked me so that I stopped eating, I refused to answer the phone. Finally James Baldwin came to my apartment door and he made noises, and said he wouldn’t leave until the police came. He was cursing and shouting “Open this door! Open this door!” I finally opened the door and he came in. He said, “Go and have a bath. I’ll wait and I’ll have some clothes for you.” He went to my closet and got clothes, and he said, “I’m taking you someplace.” Now I had no idea where he was taking me, but he had a car outside the driveway. We went to another house, a brownstone not too far from where I lived. When we got into the house he introduced me to Jules Feiffer and Jules’ wife at the time, Judy, and their daughter. Jules said, “You need to laugh, and you need to have somebody watch you laugh and laugh with you.” In that sparkling company, I did come out of myself. I was impressed, of course, with Mr. Feiffer, and with their friendship. Jimmy [Baldwin] and Judy and Jules all acted as if they had grown up together. Very respectful and responsive friends to each other. That pleased me, because Jimmy was a brother to me, and these famous white people were so kind and good.
You’ve led an astonishingly diverse life in terms of careers, from musician and songwriter to dancer and pimp. Is there any occupation you’ve never tried but always been curious to?
No, everything that’s crossed my mind I’ve tried a little bit.
I’ve read of some eccentric writing habits of yours, involving hotel roomswithout pictures on the walls, sherry, and headgear. How did you first come upon that cocktail for writing success, and has the routine evolved over your career?
And headgear! Ha! It was head ties, not headgear! Well, I was married a few times, and one of my husbands was jealous of me writing. When I write, I tend to twist my hair. Something for my small mind to do, I guess. When my husband would come into the room, he’d accuse me, and say, “You’ve been writing!” As if it was a bad thing. He could tell because of my hair, so I learned to hide my hair with a turban of some sort. I do still keep a hotel room in my hometown, and pay for it by the month. I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible.
Which edition of the Bible?
Uh—that’s a good question, it’s slipped my mind. Name a famous edition.
The King James?
That’s the one!
Anything else in the hotel room?
Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind. I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.” So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about. So I keep the room. I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and house-keeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!” But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up. And that’s how I write books!
Do you still drink sherry when you write?
Not so much anymore. I stopped about two years ago.
How do you approach the distinction between straight autobiography and autobiographical fiction?
Well, I don’t think there’s such a thing as autobiographical fiction. If I say it happened, it happened, even if only in my mind. I promised myself that I would write as well as I can, tell the truth, not to tell everything I know, but to make sure that everything I tell is true, as I understand it. And to use the eloquence which my language affords me. English is a beautiful language, don’t you think? I speak a number of languages, but none are more beautiful to me than English.
What is your second-favorite language, of those you speak?
I would say Spanish, because I speak it best, I guess. I used to think French, but when I’m doing a live promotion in France, and I look for a word, like “tablecloth,” if it does not come out right away, it will snap out of my mouth in Spanish.
You have said that nothing frightens you as much as writing, but nothing satisfies you as much either. What frightens you about it?
Will I write a sentence that will just float off the page? Easy reading is damn hard writing. But if it’s right, it’s easy. It’s the other way round, too. If it’s slovenly written, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.
You are a renowned public speaker. The art of rhetoric, once a standard part of one’s education, is no longer taught. What makes for a great public speaker and public speech?
It’s the same thing that makes for a good singer. The speaker must have a good ear, and a love for the language. Love and respect. And must be convinced that what she has to say is important. And don’t stay on the stage too long.
Who was the best public speaker you’ve ever heard? Since you were friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, I think I can guess the answer…
Dr. King. I don’t know who could stand up to that.
You’ve written everything from poetry to your own line of Hallmark cards. I’m not sure how many great writers could also be as concise and universal as to write good Hallmark card greetings. What was the process like for you?
That’s interesting. When Hallmark publicized the fact that I would be writing for them, someone in the Times asked the poet laureate of the time, What do you think about Maya Angelou writing for Hallmark? He said, I’m sorry that Ms. Angelou has reduced her art to writing mottos for greeting cards. That day I read that in the paper, and that afternoon I was in a bookstore in Miami called Books on Books. It’s a wonderful store, you’d love it—jam-packed with books. You’d want to live there. I walked down an aisle and came face to face with a woman who reminded me of me: my height, my age. But she was white. She says, You look just like Maya Angelou! And I said, I am! And the woman steadied herself on a bookshelf and the tears came down. She said to me, Ms. Angelou, I’ve been estranged from my daughter for five years. But this past Christmas she sent me a card which said “Mother love heals.” And she cried. I joined her. She said, My daughter and I are going to be re-established. She said, I take that card to my bed at night, I put it on the nightstand. In the morning I take it to the kitchen when I make coffee. I keep that card. My daughter and I are together again. I thank you.
That’s beautiful, wow.
It was wonderful, wonderful! [Writing the cards] was challenging. I would write down a paragraph that expressed what I wanted to say, and then try to reduce it to two sentences.
That’s tough self-editing.
[Laughs] Any one of those cards I’d send you. I loved it. I didn’t do it long, but I loved it.
What is your favorite item of clothing?
I guess my Uggs.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
When another person laughs at herself sincerely. I never laugh when someone is laughing at someone else.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
A lonely child.
Do you have any superstitions?
If I did, I wouldn’t tell!
What is something you always carry with you?
I’m a child of God. I carry that with me.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
[Laughs] “I did my best, I hope you do the same.”
Dr. Angelou, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Oh, I’m so glad you called. You have a beautiful name, by the way…
This interview has been edited and condensed.