Saturday, October 24, 2009

East Africa Highway Code

Reading Under the Influence

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Spoils of War: Why Do We Celebrate Kenyatta, not Kimathi, Day?

This week, Kenya will mark the anniversaries of two arrests. One will be marked by a public holiday and celebrated with fanfare, while the other will be almost completely ignored. The lives of the two suspects, the circumstances surrounding their arrests, and the differing reactions we have to them today, are symbolic of the contradictions at the centre of Kenya’s path to independence and beyond.

In the early hours of 21st October, 1952, Jomo Kenyatta was arrested peacefully at his Gatundu home, charged with managing the so-called Mau Mau uprising and on 8 April 1953 sentenced to 7 years hard labour. In an uncanny historical coincidence, 4 years to the day after Kenyatta’s arrest, on 21st October, 1956, the leader of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and self-proclaimed President of Kenya, Dedan Kimathi, was shot and captured in the forests near Nyeri. Clad in a leopard skin and carrying a .38 revolver, Kimathi was charged with carrying a lethal weapon –a capital offence under the emergency regulations then governing Kenya. He was sentenced to death and hanged at Kamiti prison on 18th February 1957.

Born almost a quarter of a century apart, the two men were destined to change the future of the Kenya colony. They each received their early education at Church of Scotland missionary schools. To pay the school fees, Kenyatta worked as a houseboy and cook for a white settler while Kimathi collected seedlings for the forestry department. Both were religiously inclined. Kenyatta converted to Christianity in 1914 assuming the name John Peter, which he then changed to Johnstone Kamau. Kimathi was reported to carry a Bible regularly. However while the former completed his education and went on to secure opportunities which saw him rise to general secretary Kikuyu Central Association in 1928 and (after a 15 year sojourn in the UK) the eventual leadership of the Kenya African Union, the latter dropped out for a lack of fees, was kicked out of the Army for misconduct, joined the militant wing of the then defunct KCA in 1951 and was elected as a local branch secretary of KAU in Ol' Kalou and Thomson's Falls area in 1952.

An interesting encounter between the two men is related by Munene Macharia, Professor of History and International Relations at the United States International University. “One day at Kaloleni, Nairobi, (so say those who were there) Kenyatta turned to Jesse Kariuki, one of his top KCA comrades and asked in Gikuyu language: ‘Jesse, andu niaiganu?’ (Are there enough people?). Before Kariuki could respond, a brash young man named Dedan Kimathi shouted ‘Ii niaiganu,’ (Yes, they are enough). On hearing Kimathi, Kenyatta reportedly took out his handkerchief, wiped his eyes and asked ‘Nimukwenda wiyathi?’ (Do you want independence?). And the public responded ‘Ii nitukwenda’ (Yes, we want it). Kenyatta then remarked, ‘Muti uyu wa wiyathi nduitagiririo mai; uitagiririo thakame. Ningunyita Kiongo-i, nimukumiriria mateke?’ (the tree of freedom is not nurtured by water but by blood. I will hold the bull by the horn, will you withstand the kicks?) ‘Ii’ (Yes), the people responded.”

That same year marked the beginning of the uprising. At about the same time Kenyatta was prevailed upon by the colonial government to curse the “secret society called Mau Mau” saying they should “go to the roots of the mikongoe tree”, Kimathi was briefly detained for his oathing activities, escaped with the help of local police and fled to the forest. In 1953, as Kenyatta declared in open court “ndiui Mau Mau” (I do not know Mau Mau, I have no connection with it) and that violence would never bring harmony, Kimathi formed the Kenya Defence Council to co-ordinate all forest fighters. That same year, as related by Gatimu Maina in his paper, Paths of the Mau Mau Revolution: Victory and Glory Usurped, he launched the only known communication between his movement and the outside world, the KLFA Charter, which attempted to explain its political position and programme of the movement. The Charter was sent to the British government. Copies were circulated to the Indian, Egyptian, French, American, and Russian governments. Pan-Africanists such as Kwame Nkurumah of Ghana, George Padmore and W.E. B. Dubois were also sent copies. To whip public support in Britain, a copy was sent to Fenner Brockway, who was a sympathizer of the Mau Mau cause. The thrust of the Charter was self-government for Kenya with an African judiciary based on African laws, African control of the economy and the withdrawal of British armed forces from Kenya. The launching of the KLFA Charter, coupled with the sustained armed struggle and the eventual creation of the Kenya Parliament with Kimathi as its President in the forests on February 5, 1954 constituted, in Gatimu’s opinion, a unilateral declaration of independence for Kenya by the KLFA.

The British took the threat posed by the KLFA very seriously. On the same night Kenyatta was arrested, a State of Emergency had been declared and British military reinforcements began to arrive in the colony. A regiment of British soldiers was flown in from the Suez Canal Zone. The Kenya Regiment (composed of European settlers) was called up. Units of the King's African Rifles arrived from neighbouring Tanganyika and Uganda. In total, according to Basil Davidson, Britain and the Kenya colonial authorities mobilized 50,000 troops for the war armed with bomber airplanes, tanks, personnel carriers and other sophisticated weapons. These were ranged against Kimathi’s estimated 10,000-25,000 guerillas armed with rifles, shotguns, homemade guns, and grenades and crude traditional weapons of all kinds.

In the forest Kimathi had to contend with emerging splits, especially between the illiterate and the educated. He had himself usurped the overall leadership of the movement from the unlettered General Stanley Mathenge who, unlike Kimathi, had military experience. As their rivalry became generalized, the educated fighters favoured Kimathi’s Parliament while the rest preferred Mathenge’s Kenya Riigi. Matters came to a head in 1955 when, according to former fighter Field Marshal Muthoni-Kirima, the colonial government “suggested a truce, that the insurgents and the colonialists start exchanging letters before they could meet physically and negotiate a ceasefire.” Kimathi took a dim view of this proposal, fearing it to be a trick, and forbade any contact with the British. However, Mathenge went ahead to meet with them, incurring the wrath of Kimathi and narrowly escaping the death sentence at his trial before the Parliament. This however did not appear to dissuade him as a week later he was reported to have had more meetings with the British. An enraged Kimathi ordered that Mathenge be brought to him alive, but the latter went into hiding and was reported to have fled to Ethiopia. (This was a precursor of what was to happen to the KLFA fighters when they emerged from the forest and stepped into an independent Kenya governed by the better educated sons of collaborators.)

By 1955, though, the brutal British tactics were beginning to tell. The forests of Mount Kenya, where the KLFA had their base camps, were designated a "prohibited area" and were heavily bombed. People living on the fringes of the forest were evicted from the land, their animals confiscated and crops and huts burned to clear the way for the "free fire zone" where any black man could be shot on sight. In fact, rewards were offered to army and police units that produced the largest number of 'Mau Mau' corpses, the hands of which were chopped off to make fingerprinting easier. The entire 1.5 million rural Kikuyu population were forcibly resettled into barbed-wire fenced villages, overseen by watch-towers. Continuing urban insurgency was smashed by the aptly named Operation Anvil in April 1954, which effectively arrested all Kikuyu in Nairobi. The back of the insurgency was broken and one by one the forest commanders fell. Eventually, after a 10 month man-hunt, Kimathi himself was captured, tried and hanged.

Meanwhile, Kenyatta, convicted after a five-month trial on the perjured testimony of Rawson Macharia, was sentenced on April 8, 1953 to seven year’s imprisonment with hard labor and indefinite restriction thereafter. His subsequent appeal was refused by the British Privy Council in 1954. On April 14, 1959, Kenyatta completed his sentence at Lokitaung but remained in restriction at Lodwar. Later, he was moved to Maralal, where he remained until August 1961. On August 14, 1961, he was allowed to return to his Gatundu home. On August 21, 1961, nine years after his arrest, he was freed from all restrictions.

Though he was not directly connected to the insurgency, his political rise after imprisonment was undoubtedly a direct result of the Mau-Mau activities. In 1961 Kenya was on track towards self-government and he was hailed as the country’s independence leader. He assumed the leadership of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), a political party formed while he was in prison and in 1963 led it to an electoral victory. He became prime minister of an independent Kenya on 12th December 1963 and a year later, when Kenya became a republic, Kenyatta was declared its first president, more than 10 years after Kimathi had claimed the title for himself.

Over the course of half a century, Kenya’s independence war has entered into the realm of legend, with little to distinguish between fact and fiction. Many who then opposed or shunned the insurgency nowadays proclaim themselves to be at its forefront, while the real fighters languish in long-forgotten and overgrown graves or are still awaiting the recognition and rewards they insist are due them. Just as Kimathi usurped the uneducated Mathenge’s authority in the forest, so the collaborators and their offspring inherited his uprising.

The name attached to the movement itself betrays this. While initially it had no name (the Kikuyu had called it Muingi ("The Movement"), Muigwithania ("The Understanding"), Muma wa Uiguano ("The Oath of Unity") or simply "The KCA", after the Kikuyu Central Association that created the impetus for the insurgency), according to Bildad Kaggia, the movement had been using the Kiswahili word muhimu (important) as a password for the movement and its activities. After muhimu declared an open war on the British colonial government, the combat forces referred to themselves as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. The British though called it Mau Mau, a bastardised name given to them by the settlers. In the 1953 Charter, Kimathi introduced his movement stating: “We reject being called [Mau Mau or] terrorists for demanding our people’s rights. [It is derogatory]. We are the Kenya Land [and] Freedom Army.” Josiah Mwangi (JM) Kariuki, who was interned in prison camps from 1953 to 1960, and later murdered by Kenyatta's agents, talked of the KLFA saying: "The world knows it by a title of abuse and ridicule with which it was described by one of its bitterest opponents." To this day, however, the appendage Mau Mau remains.

Neither has the derogatory nature of the term changed. The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines the verb to “mau-mau” as “to intimidate (as an official) by hostile confrontation or threats”. In 2002, right-wing US columnist Ann Coulter, outraged that Halle Berry won an Oscar, complained that the Black artist had "successfully mau-maued her way to a Best Actress Award." In 1993, Former US Vice President Daniel Quayle's chief of staff, William Kristol, said Carol Mosely Braun "mau-maued" the U.S. Senate when, as the only African American woman member in the Senate's history, she stopped a charter renewal for the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The statistics of the KLFA uprising are also a source of perennial controversy. According to the British government, some 32 white civilians, 63 white military and 527 'loyalists' were killed. In contrast, 11,503 Africans died. Other sources have the Kikuyu death toll at anywhere from 20,000-30,000 with 10,527 fighters killed in action. One thing is not in dispute though. The British losses were remarkably light, with less than 100 dead. What accounts for this discrepancy? Was the conflict, as some (including the British) have termed it, less about aspirations to nationhood and more of a civil war within the Kikuyu community?

In a paper entitled Emergency in Kenya: Kikuyu and the Mau Mau Insurrection, Major Roger D. Hughes of the US Marine Corps says about the conflict: “The Mau Mau movement is usually viewed strictly as being politically motivated toward national independence. The less popular view is endorsed herein, that two separate, multi-faceted movements existed, one motivated by nationalism, and the other by a blind, irrational quest for revenge. In the process of each attempting to exploit the other for self-serving purposes, they became uncontrollably intertwined, which resulted in near disaster for the Kikuyu tribe. Totally lacking in quality intelligence regarding the origins of Mau Mau at the outbreak of hostilities in 1952, colonial forces struck out blindly to suppress the violence and treated the movements as one. Thus, the Military resolution is traced through 1956, when the preponderance of hostilities were finally suppressed in what seemed at that time more like an intra-tribal civil war than a war of independence.”

As related by Marshall S. Clough in his book Mau Mau memoirs: History, Pemory, and Politics, “the Gikuyu were the angriest and the most internally divided of the major ethnic groups in Kenya. Colonial rule had affected them deeply, and for two generations they had suffered from its impositions and responded to the opportunities it had offered more than any other Africans. The British authorities and their policies tended to push the Gikuyu together, but for most the closer ties to lineage, locality and district remained more important than loyalty to the ethnic group as a whole. Ever since the founding of the Kikuyu Association (KA) in 1919, their politicians had protested such grievances as land alienation in Kiambu and Nyeri, the treatment of squatters in the Rift Valley, the carrying of passes, and the non-representation of Africans in the Legislative Council. In protest politics, however, disunity had been as typical a common front, as witnessed by the division between the KA and the East African Association (EAA) in 1921 and between the KA and the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in the late 1920s. Religious disputes, emerging originally from the cliterodectomy conflict of 1929-1931, divided them further among animists, followers of mission Christianity, Christian independents, and followers of prophetic sects (the arathi). Divisions between educated and uneducated, landed and landless, rich and poor had widened in the interwar period. Moreover, Gikuyu members of the colonial authority structure, especially chiefs, had often clashed with politicians and these conflicts would grow more intense in the postwar period as the second colonial generation entered politics.”

And what of tactics? Both sides utilised the tactics of terror and neither spared innocents. Just compare these two reports, one by Peter Swan, a British policeman who guarded Kimathi after his capture:
The Mau Mau 'Freedom Fighters' were no more than thugs whose terrorist activities were directed mainly at their own tribesman than at the 'whites'. Having come across Meru women, gutted with an unborn child torn from them; children whose heads had been cracked open; an old couple that where burnt alive after being ham-strung to make sure that they couldn't get away, it was difficult for me and the twenty African policeman to have any sympathy for those Mau Mau that we encountered. We took no prisoners. To hear them classed as heroes' of the day goes against the grain.
Another account from an Australian living in Kenya during the ‘Emergency’:
We was joined by two of [a settler named] Bill’s mates in another Land Rover and just about dawn we seen two Africans crossing the road ahead. Bill fired a shot across their bow and they put their hands up. I tried to tell Bill that those lads, hardly more than boys they was, didn’t look like Mickeys (Mau Mau) to me but he says, “They’re Kukes and that’s enough for me”. Well he roughs them up some but they say they don’t know where the gang of Mickeys went to, so he gets some rope and ties one to the rear bumper of his Land Rover by his ankles. He drives off a little ways, not too fast you know, and the poor black bastard is trying to keep from ploughing the road with his nose. The other cobbers are laughing and saying, “put it in high gear Bill” and such as that, but Bill gets out and says, “Last chance, Nugu (baboon), where’s that gang?” The African boy keeps saying he’s not Mau Mau, but Bill takes off like a bat out of hell. When he comes back, the nigger wasn’t much more than pulp. He didn’t have any face left at all. So Bill and his mates tie the other one to the bumper and ask him the same question. He’s begging them to let him go but old Bill takes off again and after a while he comes back with another dead Mickey. They just left the two of them there in the road.
Even tales of Kimathi himself tend to differ with a 1956 TIME Magazine article titled "The Terrorist" saying of him:
There was no fiercer character in all the jungle than Dedan Kimathi, a scarred, stocky ex-clerk who had fought and jockeyed his way to the leadership of all the guerrillas. Not content with his popular title, "General Russia," Dedan capped his arrogance by calling himself Field Marshal Sir Dedan Kimathi and appointing a parliament of his own to preside over...A refugee captured by Kenya police as he left Kimathi's camp recently has provided a vivid picture of the once great chieftain in his twilight hour. Broken in health and mind, 35-year-old Dedan Kimathi now spends his days making wild speeches to the jungle trees and his nights raving endlessly. He lies on a litter of branches, blubbering and blabbering about reform in the Liberation army, while his friends search the woods for monkeys to eat. Whenever a police patrol comes near, the 20 loyal henchmen (and teen-age henchwomen) who still surround him hustle Kimathi into a nearby cave and gag him to keep him quiet.
Peter Swan, quoted above, paints an entirely different picture of the man:
Our first hours together were almost silent. My command of Kikuyu language was reduced to the long drawn out greetings 'Moogerrrh' which should have elicited the reply 'Moogerrhni'. His command of Kiswahili and mine were similar, in that we were both well versed in what was loosely termed Kaffir Swahili. He was, I discovered, soon after joining him in the hospital, well versed in English and we later spent time swapping tales of our bush activities in that language. His wound was in the thigh and he had to be stretchered everywhere. Up to then he had received rudimentary first aid and he was still dressed in the leopard skins that had been his trade mark during his Mau Mau operations...Dedan Kimathi and I sat and read the books that I brought in to pass the time. Our conversations were occasional and without animosity or conflict on either side. He knew the penalty for his activity was death, and he expected that sentence. He believed that the sentence would not be executed and that he would survive. There was a quiet and distant confidence in his belief.
I think Kenyans deserve to know the truth about what has come to be known as the fight for Uhuru and why it is the sons of the homeguards, not the "freedom fighters" who reaped the fruits of independence. Why is it that the Mau Mau continued to be a proscribed organisation up till 2003? Why do we insist on honouring dead fighters while ignoring the plight of those still alive? The blog What An African Woman Thinks has informative interviews with some of these fighters including Field Marshal Muthoni, in which one General Karangi, "is hard put to understand why those who successfully evaded bullet, bomb and grenade are less praiseworthy than the one who got caught".

While the Mau Mau lost the military fight against the British, they lived to see the White Man ejected from Kenya. However, 50 years on, their land and legacy is now being stolen anew by those who collaborated with the colonialists. It seems to me that we, as Kenyans, have striven to erase from our minds what should be a heroic chapter in our common history. Instead we seem determined to construct a new tale in which the villains of yesterday become the heroes of today while the real fighters, their accomplishments, and eventual betrayal is consigned to history's dustbin.

Othe 50th anniversary of his hanging, the Kenyan government took the step of honouring Kimathi by erecting a statue. A better memorial would be an honest retelling of the story of his struggle, and an explanation of why he was allowed to rot in an unmarked grave while Kenyatta’s body deserved the splendor of a mausoleum.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

On Cartooning

Knife-edged and salient, there is no simpler or more effective form of journalism than the editorial or political cartoon. The message – usually critical – is instantaneous, and often funny. For over half a millenium cartoonists have exposed abuses of power, the corruption of government and the hypocrisy of society. Their works provide a running commentary on events, people, attitudes and preoccupations, and reflect momentary shifts in public sentiment.

But even earlier than that, in fact from the very dawn of his existence, man was using images to tell his story. The rocks of Africa, for example, are host to millions of images, some of which date back to 10,000 B.C. What makes the connection between these and later cartooning is occasional similarity between the way people are caricatured on the rocks and some of the cartoons that appear, for instance, in the Karonga Kronikal, a humour magazine created for and by troops fighting in the East African campaign during World War 1.

The word “cartoon” is drawn (no pun intended) from cartone, the Italian word for “pasteboard.” The Italian masters used pasteboard for rough sketches (cartoni), which were especially useful in preparing frescoes and tapestries. The word did not come to mean “an amusing sketch” until the 1840s when Prince Albert, who wanted to decorate the walls of the new Houses of Parliament in London with frescoes, opened a competition for their design. The cartoons for the frescoes, some of them absurd in their attempts to appear heroic, were exhibited in 1843 and parodied shortly thereafter in the English magazine Punch, thus earning the word its present meaning.

Political cartoons are for the most part composed of two elements: caricature, which parodies the individual, and allusion, which creates the situation or context into which the individual is placed. While caricature originated around the Mediterranean, with Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic explorations of “the ideal type of deformity” which he used to better understand the concept of ideal beauty, cartoons of a more editorial nature developed further north. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther condensed his message into simple broadsheet posters or illustrated pamphlets which were the distributed throughout population centres. It proved to be an effective strategy because the images would reach a large amount of people and, in an age of widespread illiteracy, enjoy the greatest possible amount of comprehension. As Barry Burden, assistant professor of government at Harvard University, puts it, “Satire was once the way for illiterate people to make sense of what was going on in politics.”

According to Ray Morris of York University, cartooning depends on the political system. In totalitarian regimes the artist is forced to praise the system and denounce its enemies. In authoritarian regimes some dissent is allowed, and when the regimes become brittle cartoonists mercilessly expose their rigid foolishness. In a Western (style) democracy during peace-time, cartoonists are watchdogs, keeping power-holders honest and accountable. “One might then generalize that cartoonists focus on office-holders and aspirants whom the public can hope to defeat in an election or a popular uprising. Cartoons focus overwhelmingly on the leaders of the party in power. Other government and business figures are in the minority.”

Cynthia Bailey Lee states in ‘A Semiotic Analysis of Political Cartoons’, a study of the visual images of presidential candidates portrayed in the editorial cartoons in the 2000 US presidential election campaign, “political cartoons are...successful in helping society to understand and make judgments about the extremely complex interactions at work in political systems.”

Over the years, the power of cartoons has been illustrated time and again. As Western culture diversified from its original religious foundation, new subjects became available for ridicule and the appeal and influence of cartoons on public life grew in proportion. In 1764, a series of four copperplate images inflamed tempers during the 1764 elections and ultimately cost Benjamin Franklin his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly, the only election he was ever to lose. In 18th Century Europe, the cartoonists of England, Russia, Germany, Spain, and the United States generally declared satirical war on Napoleon, and so effective were they that Napoleon sent notes to the government of England requesting their suppression, equating them with murderers.

By the mid-19th century, editorial cartoons had become regular features in American newspapers. The continuing effect of political cartoons on public opinion was amply demonstrated with the demise of William Tweed, a New York politician in the 1870s, largely caused by the attention paid to him by cartoonist Thomas Nast. Tweed’s exasperated response speaks to the power of Nast’s cartoons. He demanded of his henchmen,“Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!”

In the tumultuous first half of the 20th Century, cartoons continued to be used to motivate soldiers and the citizenry. Cartoons in the Karonga Kronikal helped define the enemy, by depicting German soldiers comically, such as in positions impersonating African women or as cowards hiding behind African men. According to Melvin E. Page, in an article titled “With Jannie in the Jungle: European Humour in an East African Campaign” published in The International Journal of African Historical Studies in 1981, “the enemy in Europe was frequently painted in horrific terms, a Teutonic barbarian cruelly smashing the innocent and righteous.” By the WW2, the influence of cartoons was such that Hitler and Stalin surrounded themselves with large groups of “pocket” cartoonists who praised them extravagantly. They also destroyed or exiled cartoonists critical of them. During the “Battle for Britain” Englishman David Low, considered the century’s greatest cartoonist, was put on Hitler’s “death list.”

In modern times, political cartoonists, especially in the West, have fallen on hard times. Newspapers across the US, for example, are under pressure as readership declines along with advertising revenue, while more and more Americans get their information online. The dramatic decline in advertising dollars in a brutal economy has forced newspapers to cut costs by firing cartoonists, and turning to marketing syndicates for cheap cartoons. As a result, over the past three decades, the number of editorial cartoonists working in America's newsrooms has been cut in half. Prominent newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times do not employ a staff cartoonist.

In East Africa, the situation is reversed. The number of working cartoonists in Kenya, for example, has more than doubled in a decade and newspapers are increasing in number, not decreasing. However this may be short lived as internet use spreads. Many cartoonists are paradoxically turning to the web for salvation. The opportunity to reach a wider audience and practice their art unfettered by the fears and inclinations of editors might yet prove to be a blessing.

However if the tradition of irreverent political cartooning was to disappear, the world would be the poorer for it. Editorial cartoonists are valuable to democracy because, as Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist Clay Bennet puts it, “democracy needs hecklers.”

“Let's face it, most people are just plain nice… reluctant to impose their comments or observations on others when those views are either unkind or unsolicited. Most folks will sit quietly in a theater (no matter how bad the performance) and clap politely… But in every audience there's a heckler—someone who's either fearless or foolhardy enough to publicly ridicule the flaws in a performance… Columnists and editorial writers are more like theater critics —studiously observing, then methodically reviewing the show with deserving praise or criticism. Editorial cartoonists, however, would be the hecklers—blurting out their complaints for all to hear, receiving scorn from some and approving nods from others in the audience. Although the critic and heckler basically serve the same purpose, the latter is much less concerned with the prospect of embarrassing others... or himself.”

Another famous cartoonist, the late Herb Block, who coined the term “Mc-Carthyism” and attacked the infamous anti-communist investigations of that era notes in his essay, “The Cartoon”: “Cartooning is an irreverent form of expression...If the prime role of a free press is to serve as critic of government, cartooning is often the cutting edge of that criticism.”

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Live and Let Die

Across the globe, millions of trees have been martyred to provide the paper upon which the sorry tale of man’s inhumanity to nature is recorded. Animal shows and channels dedicated to them have proliferated on air, telling us why each and every one of nature’s creatures is special, lovable and deserving of protection. However, sometimes I think it useful to question the rationale. Does nature accord each and every species a right to exist? Do we have an obligation to protect them all from the consequences of human activity?

The indisputable answer to the first question is a resounding no! No species on this earth, humans included, enjoys an absolute right to exist, at least not one that Mother Nature recognizes. According to Dr. Richard Leakey, former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and world-renowned conservationist, since life first appeared, more than 99% of all species that ever existed have become extinct. From the dodo to the dinosaur, all who didn’t get with nature’s evolutionary programme brought upon themselves the indignity of having their graves dug up by archaeologists and their naked bones displayed to all and sundry.

Far from being rare, extinction is very much a fact of life. It is nature’s age-old mechanism for getting rid of the evolutionary chaff. From the very beginnings of life on this planet, extinction’s agents have come in many forms -meteorites, climate change, disease and other animals- none of which have been particularly welcome. However, special condemnation has been reserved for the latest incarnation, Homo Sapiens.

By most accounts, we are living in a period of mass extinctions. Writing in the American Scientist magazine, Dr. Donald A. Levin notes that the rate of extinction occurring in today's world is exceptional -as much as 100 to1,000 times greater than normal. Anywhere from 35 -150 species disappear every day. In 2008, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the world's main authority on the conservation status of species, "confirmed an extinction crisis, with almost one in four [mammals] at risk of disappearing forever". A 1998 survey by the American Museum of Natural History found that 70% of biologists view the present era as part of a mass extinction event, the fastest to have ever occurred.

While man undoubtedly bears some blame for this state of affairs, his contribution has been less than stellar. Leakey considers “our role in this extraordinary [extinction] saga has been minuscule and so far…not statistically significant”. And while some, such as E. O. Wilson of Harvard University, predict that man's destruction of the biosphere could cause the extinction of one-half of all species in the next 100 years, in the grand scheme of evolutionary things, this is not a lot. Other Extinction-Level Events (ELEs) such as the Permian-Triassic decimated up to 96% of all marine and 70% of land specie. Nonetheless, the “crisis” has many people worried.

The typical reaction has been to attempt to save everything. Extinction, though, is not necessarily a bad thing. It creates room for better adapted species to develop and survive and also affords us the opportunity to rid this planet of any that make our lives a living hell, such as mosquitoes, bedbugs, cockroaches and tse-tse flies. As Leakey rhetorically asked in his famous ‘bunny huggers” speech, “Given the inevitability of extinctions, and bearing in mind that most of these losses will come about as a consequence of activities beyond the control of individual nations or their conventions, should we really be concerned about the loss of a few species that results from international trade? Will the world be any worse off if there are no longer pangolins, brown hyenas or pandas? The Europeans don't seem to have suffered from the loss of the woolly rhinoceros and how many Americans even remember the giant sloth that slipped into extinction some ten thousand years ago? Will Africans miss the elephant or the rhino if these too disappear? Is the elephant any more important than an orchid that grows near tropical wetlands? What about the extinction of hundreds and thousands of species that we humans have not yet even discovered? Does it matter if they become extinct before we even know that they exist?”

Actually, to try to preserve everything would be a clear challenge to nature’s idiom of survival for the fittest. In humanity’s insatiable consumption and material progress, Mother Nature is once again wielding her broom and sweeping away species that have overstayed their welcome. Better, I think, to go with the flow and accept that some, even many, species will have to go. The evolutionary New World Order with mankind at the top of the food chain is unlikely to collapse any time soon. This means that species that cannot adapt to our destructive ways will either have to hide and wait until we are spent or they will be exterminated. Evolution has never been a democracy. It respects neither human, animal nor vegetable rights.

We, though, have a vested interest. Our physical and economic well being is tied to the fate of many other species. For example bees, which the world over have been dying from a mysterious syndrome termed colony collapse disorder, or CCD, threaten enormous consequences. Experts at Cornell University in upstate New York have estimated the value bees generate in the US alone - by pollinating fruit and vegetable plants, almond trees and animal feed like clover - at more than $14 billion. In fact, animals provide pollination services for over three-quarters of the staple crop plants that feed human kind and for 90% of all flowering plants in the world. As Albert Einstein once put it, “no more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

We are also endowed with a natural appetite for love and empathy. We abhor the waste of thousands of elephant lives in the service of our baser need to kill and our higher appreciation of beauty. We protect these “gentle giants” even when they destroy the livelihoods of peasant farmers who see nothing gentle in the behemoth’s manner. So I think a balance has to be struck between our role as nature’s hangmen and our compassion for those in her gallows.

Not all living things deserve our protection. And even if we wanted to, we could scarcely afford the investment it would take to save them all. We need a rationale for prioritizing which species to preserve and which to let go. Leakey declares that government policy should be based on the non-negotiable premise that “species which are the stuff of nature are priceless, as are human dignity and freedom.” While I definitely agree that human dignity and liberty are undoubtedly priceless, I think even he would have a hard time defending the priceless nature of the Ebola virus or the Guinea worm. The argument that viruses and other lethal parasites play a vital role in assuring our evolutionary “fitness” by eliminating weaker individuals is undercut by the acknowledged priceless nature of human dignity. It is a safe bet that theirs is a service that we would gladly do without.

My motto is: If the species is good for us then we save it. If it’s bad for us, then we kill it. If it doesn’t fall in either category, then it takes care of itself and good luck to it. Of course, this should not be taken as a license for extermination of all but the most obviously beneficial animals. Since we are often ignorant of future benefits of certain species, we need to hedge our bets through solutions that accommodate as many as possible without injuring our interests. All the same, we live in the present and while storing up for the future, let’s be careful we do not starve ourselves today.

That many organisms on this planet exist at our pleasure has been proven time and time again. And not just in regard to extinction. Through genetic tampering, we have created never-before seen specimens of cows, sheep, tomatoes etc. We have striven to eradicate any animal/plant that has posed a threat to our way of life. The smallpox bacterium and the saber-toothed tiger are just a few examples. Others we have locked up in zoos, reserves and parks for profit, academic study or just the joy of having them around as a kind of exotic pet. In a very real sense, we have been playing God for a long time. It’s about time we learnt to live and let die.