"If Somalia fails, it will fail like a Catherine Wheel" - in conversation
with Jonathan Ledgard, author of 'Submergence' - By Magnus Taylor
December 14, 2011
"I've given up on being negative - there are too many things to save, and
too many important things to do," says Jonathan Ledgard - a foreign
correspondent and author whose work has been compared with that of the
German great W.G. Sebald. Ledgard is currently the East Africa correspondent
of The Economist and his most recent novel, Submergence, is set,
substantially, in Somalia.
Ledgard is a serious and thoughtful writer, seriously thoughtful might be a
better description, and Submergence covers many themes - from Islamism to
oceanic exploration - but is really concerned with a bigger, broader problem
- the survival of the human species. Whilst Ledgard has written a novel
which is studiously "anti-anthropomorphic" he has also produced a rare
literary portrait of Somalia - a harsh and often cruel region of the world
in which the author sees many of the environmental and political challenges
that will characterise the future history of the human race.
Somalia in the book is the location where James More - a member of the
British secret service passing himself off as a water engineer - is held by
members of the Islamist group Al Shabaab and a collection of Al-Qaeda
affiliated foreign fighters pursing Jihad in one of the world's least
forgiving environments. More's narrative makes up around a third of this
tightly woven novel - the accompanying sections being the story of Danielle
Flinders, a biomathematician with a fascination with the deep oceans as she
prepares to make a dive into an ocean trench, and the brief but intense
period which they spent together, as lovers, in a luxury French hotel
overlooking the Atlantic coast.
The Somalia section of the book should, as Ledgard intended, make us
profoundly reconsider how we perceive the relationship of such a place with
the world. In this sense, the local should be appreciated only in the
context of far greater global forces that impact upon the region's own
collapse. Ledgard has visited Somalia on many occasions, and his portrayal
of the country is of a place at 'the end of the line' - a marginal zone of
environmental degradation and conflict which has forced its population into
a Dante-esque existence, most starkly portrayed through the description of a
mass humanitarian feeding in the port city of Kismayo, where a baby is
trampled under foot in the rush to receive assistance. Even the hardcore of
foreign Islamists from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Yemen are only
there because there is nowhere else for them to go.
Whilst the hellish nature of existence in Southern Somalia may be
deliberately overdrawn, Ledgard is strong in his belief that "there is land
now that cannot support human beings in the numbers it is being required
to." He is not a gloomy neo-Malthusian, but he is not far from it, and a
story recounted in the book concerning the population collapse of the Somali
spiny lobster - fished to extinction in unregulated coastal waters, and
consumed thoughtlessly on expense accounts in Dubai - is a metaphor for the
destruction of resources worldwide, by an expanding global population.
Ledgard's deep experience of Eastern Africa is evident and impressive in its
attention to detail. More's tailing of a senior al-Qaeda commander to
Madagascar is unmistakably based on the story of Fazul Abdullah Muhammad - a
native of the Comoros islands - who was allegedly involved in the bombing of
the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, hunted by the CIA, and killed earlier
this year in Mogadishu. The description of the stoning to death of a 13 year
old girl, gang raped but convicted of adultery by Islamic leaders, was a
real event <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7708169.stm
> which was widely
reported in 2008.
Ledgard himself is not entirely pessimistic about Africa's future, and with
his Economist hat on he states that "In the next 10 years you should put all
your money and resources into Africa and you'll make a lot of money."
However, this 'Africa Rising' narrative doesn't change the fact that almost
all African governments - Somalia being an extreme example - have failed to
build a future for their young people. Therefore, in the medium term, he
argues that it is likely "we'll see some very violent ruptures in African
countries." This is the larger 'civilizational point' that Ledgard is making
with Submergence - "it's not clear whether this country, or Africa, is going
to make it.this is a point in time at which we are making big decisions
about who we let in and leave behind."
Somalia is not a country that will fail meekly. If it fails, it will fail
"like a Catherine wheel," and is perhaps doing so already. The creative
forces of commerce however still survive in the country - the livestock
trade with the Arabian Peninsula, for example, is returning - but without
solving vast political problems, without ensuring there is government that
supplies public goods for its people, and prevents, through planning, the
further environmental degradation of the land, the country is destined to
foster destructive forces that drag it further into violence and chaos.
Ledgard states that he would like to see more writing on Africa "pulls back"
and asks "where are we actually heading?" He himself is a writer doing
exactly this on both a continental and global scale. For those interested in
Somalia, or Africa in general, Submergence is a particular pleasure as it
considers seriously, with convincing detail, their place in the world.
Magnus Taylor is Managing Editor of African Arguments
Somalia's failure tells us much about the the future of the human species
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Received on Wed Dec 14 2011 - 17:04:15 EST