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Seewell Mashizha: Life is an open book; We should live and learn
23/12/2016 00:00:00
by Seewell Mashizha
 
Water Harvester, the late Zephaniah Maseko Phiri
 
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‘My heart is an open book,’ went the hugely sentimental but popular 1959 hit song by Carl Dobkins Jr. The song entered the US pop charts in March 1959 and reached a prestigious number 3.

With the naiveté typical of starry-eyed youths, Dobkins Jr enthused about the lack of design and the virtue of wearing one’s heart on a sleeve. In today’s world soiled with secrecy and subterfuge the open-book quality is something that we could all do with. That way we would be spared the crocodile tears and sanctimonious reportage on Syria and Aleppo in the embedded media houses of the West.

It’s a deceitful new world in which the culprits become the heroes by repackaging everything then standing aside to watch. Whither to Africa in all this? We can live and learn, not least from ourselves. There are as many lessons from our own experiences as there are from our traducers.

I am always awestruck by the fact that despite Spain not being a powerhouse in world economy rankings she has the richest club in the world: Real Madrid!  Why can’t successive governments there take a leaf from Real Madrid, the free mentor in their own system? Closer to home, we have the miracle that is the Ethiopian Airlines, vibrant and profitable even in the worst of times, attracting qualified personnel from across the globe and servicing world-wide routes with all sorts of planes including the wide-bodied wonders of modern air travel. In a cut-throat situation the airline has continued to hold her own over the years. Business rivalry and espionage aside, Ethiopian Airlines is an open book that all of Africa can emulate.

Addis Ababa is a busy air terminal with travellers from all over stopping en route to whatever their destinations may happen to be. On a daily basis many such passengers spend the night in Addis and willy-nilly give business to Ethiopian hotels who are only too glad to have such windfalls come their way. It is obvious that the airline has had downstream benefits for the country’s population. This is perhaps an unintended affirmation of the efficacy of the trickle-down theory that Brazil once espoused.

By all accounts it all started as the dream of a paradoxically feudal yet modernizing monarch, Ras Tafari, otherwise known as Emperor Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah, 225th and last emperor of Ethiopia. His birth name Ras Tafari is what gave the world the movement known as Rastafarianism. There are those who will swear that when his plane touched down in Kingston Jamaica on 21 April in 1966 the atmosphere was electric and almost apocalyptic as if a deity was visiting. That was the sort of impact the emperor had, a far cry from clowns like Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic who imagined that wearing a fancy crown on his butcher’s head made him an emperor. All that remains of this ‘emperor’ is a set of unpleasant memories. He left no legacy whatsoever.



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Significantly, after his coronation in 1930, Haile Selassie gave Ethiopia its first written constitution. The constitution gave him more power than parliament and this to a large extent is what made him less ham-strung than other leaders. Whatever his fancy wanted easily became reality. Ethiopian Airlines is a case in point. With its establishment Ethiopia became much more visible and better-known than when she was just the country that gave coffee to the world. The airline also meant that tourism in Ethiopia could be developed. There is much that is of interest in Ethiopia. The City of Axium is a huge tourist attraction with its obelisks and the famed ruins of the palace of the Biblical Queen of Sheba whose children with King David are said to have had the ark of the covenant bequeathed to them by a besotted David, once again felled by the beauty of a woman. According to the Ethiopians, the ark is housed in a chapel at the St Mary’s Cathedral of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Axium.

Haile Selassie had many downsides. Marcus Garvey, credited with being the founder of Rastafarianism with his famous prophecy in which he said, "Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer,” tellingly criticized the emperor for fleeing his homeland when Mussolini’s army invaded Ethiopia. And although there now is evidence that industrialized nations contributed to the 1973 famine which killed over 200 000 Ethiopians. Carbon emissions from their factories so damaged the ozone layer that there was a reverse phenomenon in which the rays of the sun were refracted back into the atmosphere. This meant that there was insufficient heat to cause the necessary evaporation in the Indian Ocean. Without the usual evaporation there was no cloud formation and therefore no rain. The devastating famine that ensued became unavoidable. History might say he could have had contingency measures in place for just such a disaster as befell his country. Nevertheless, Haile Selassie’s decree of 1945 which set up the airline was a stroke of genius. Inside 5 years the airline was declaring profits where other African airlines were stumbling and even folding.

Ethiopian Airlines has the largest network of routes within Africa and flies to 22 domestic and 44 international destinations. The international destinations are spread out on four continents. Statistics show that at least 1.5 million people fly Ethiopian every year. Since its launch in 1946, Ethiopian, a pioneer in African aviation industry, has had an excellent reputation and work ethic even with the various upheavals and changes in government. To their credit, the various governments that have come to power in the country have not interfered with the running of the airline. The airline’s success even when things were tough around it is something to marvel at and to learn from. Not surprisingly, therefore, its cargo operations are a vital part of its business. In addition, Ethiopian has under its portfolio, a wide range of ancillary services including running Africa's leading maintenance and training operations. The company’s fleet has grown almost exponentially since 1946 as has its business. Ethiopian employs various small planes, helicopters, and even crop dusters, in its viable side ventures. One hopes that Ethiopia and Africa can use Ethiopian as an example of how to flourish and grow with the toughest and the best. 

Haile Selassie was also a visionary where education and infrastructure were concerned. He donated his palace and its grounds to get the country’s first university in Addis Ababa off the ground. That university is, today, a renowned institution. Selassie’s palace has been preserved as part of the country’s heritage. It stands as a cultural museum on the campus and its contents are still as he left them: bed, tunics and all.

Thomas Sankara used his short stay in power more effectively than many leaders around the world. One wonders where Burkina Faso might have been now had he survived assassination. Without doubt Sankara restored the dignity of his people and gave them the confidence to go forward together. There is a lesson to learn there in terms of forging the spirit of oneness that is always a guarantee of visible progress and harmony. Those who accuse Sankara of being a dictator should explain how he obtained a crucial buy-in from Burkinabes when his ideas were so labour- intensive. Where there had been hardly any production to speak of Sankara raised the nation to food self–sufficiency within a period of less than five years. There was also an infrastructure revolution with roads, schools and clinics built. And the Burkinabes did all this without outside assistance. Suddenly, Africa had a young and popular radical in power who was focused enough to see his dreams come to fruition. Sankara was a man of the people who abhorred trappings and understood well that he could be rich without money. He is probably one of very few leaders anywhere who earned less money than a bank teller. At one time Sankara’s bank account had an overdraft. For locomotion to places within easy reach Sankara often used a bicycle and when stressed he unwound by playing music with a band.  By looking at Sankara’s life I understand better the import of Bob Marley’s enigmatic words: Some people are so poor; all they have is money. He may have had quisling Blaise Compaore in mind.

There is some evidence that some leaders of Africa have taken note of Sankara’s attractive asceticism. The current Tanzanian President, John Magufuli, has cut down on pretensions and begun to trim down government expenditure on non-essentials. Modest steps perhaps in the context of Africa, but steps in the right direction, nevertheless. Magufuli’s example puts to shame, even if anachronistically, the excesses of Mobutu Sese Seko, the tin-pot dictator, who had the temerity in 1989 to say he was lending the country his personal money to enable it to pay the civil servants. The man did pretty much what he willed and could be away for all of six months at any given time, enjoying himself on the French Riviera where he had luxurious properties. But who cares about him now? Not even his masters in the West who were content to let him be, since he made his billions by allowing them free play with the country’s natural resources. Again, we wonder how Patrice Emile Lumumba might have fared had he been allowed to enact his dream for the Congo.

Anybody with an inkling of what architectural design is and what it does and can do will bear with me when I speculate about the curricula in Zimbabwe’s universities. How come none of them have a faculty named after Great Zimbabwe? The wonder that Great Zimbabwe, the monument, is, begs the question about our inability to consolidate the country’s history by duplicating its achievements and coming up with new innovations. Look what the water harvester of Zvishavane, a peasant farmer did with a bit of determination and some ingenuity. If he and famine had been two lions he would have been the older and more terrible of the two, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Mr. Phiri conquered hunger and famine with is engineering feat in a dusty communal area. Now his paradigm is being replicated in Chivi, a drought-prone area of Zimbabwe. Books and articles have been written about Zephania Phiri of Msipani. One such book is ‘The Water Harvester: episodes from the inspired life of Zephaniah Phiri.’ The book was researched for and written by Mary Witoshynsky.

Zephaniah Phiri Maseko interrogated his environment and came up with a unique system now called ‘water harvesting’. This is how he became the founder of the Zvishavane Water Project. Mr. Phiri thrived on hard work that saw him changing his dry family plot into a productive piece of ‘wetland’ and innovative agro-ecosystem.  He turned the hated Rhodesian contour ridge system on its head and came up with a working model of a poor man’s irrigation system. My fear is that now that this jewel is no more Zimbabwe has not have done enough to spread his ideas, methods and technology. Perhaps Sheunesu Mpepereki the renowned world expert on soya bean can take this up. He comes from Zvishavane. The idea could even be exported within the region and beyond. Tourists and foreign students could visit the late water harvester’s project and help take it forward in the process.

Look at what has happened to Harare’s Eastgate complex. It is famous the world over because it was designed using the principles of an anthill, including the ventilation systems. But what have we done with it? People should be flocking from all over the world to see this architectural wonder. The unspoken conclusion is that the Zimbabwe Tourist Authority is unaware of the significance of Eastgate. Some tragedy that would be!

We must live, learn and use all our assets, natural and man-made, to the good of all. After all, life is an open book, there to read if we are discerning.

  

 

 


 
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