Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Maldives


Well, here it is.

The country that motivated the creation of The Informal Guide.

Because my ignorance of its existence outraged me, I did some immediate internet research. Therefore I already know The Maldives is an island chain in the Indian Ocean, stretching south of India.

Um... I guess that's all I know.

Let's see what else there is.


The Maldives is essentially a big tropical resort.

It has a population just under 400,000, spread across more than a thousand islands grouped into 26 atolls.

The islands are unusual in that they are composed of coral reefs, just barely sticking out of the water.

They have a very low elevation -- averaging about a meter above sea level -- so if current rates of global warming continue, the Maldives -- like Kiribati in the Pacific -- will be completely underwater in about a century.

The 2004 tsunami wreaked havoc on the Maldives, causing damage worth 62% of its GDP. That GDP comes mostly from tourism, with the fishing industry a distant second.


The Maldives are thought to have been peopled by members of the Indus Valley Civilization, which is the oldest known civilization on Earth, besides Mesopotamia.

That makes the Indus Valley Civilization older than the ancient Chinese, or even the ancient Egyptians.

Here's a list of the oldest known civilizations:

Mesopotamia -- 5300 BC
Indus Valley -- 3300 BC
Egypt -- 3200 BC
Norte Chico -- 2900 BC
China -- 1500 BC
Mesoamerica -- 1200 BC


Buddhism came to the Maldives in the third century BC, followed by Islam in the twelfth century AD.

The Maldives was technically a muslim sultanate until 1968, though in practice the British ran the show from 1887 until...

INDEPENDENCE 1965. Three years later the sultanate made the smart public relations move of abolishing the monarchy in favor of a republic,
but the government remained autocratic under the governance of President Maumoon Gayoom.

Political parties weren't even legalized until 2005. Once they were, of course, Gayoom lost the next election and the Maldives gained its first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Nasheed.

Nasheed's an interesting guy. He was educated in England, and upon embarking on a political career back in the Maldives, he was arrested repeatedly for the crime of advocating democracy.

He actually spent several years in the clink, which makes him a kind of Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, albeit on a much smaller scale.

And he's in charge now.

Good for the Maldives!


Because it has great weather. And I love great weather.


Aruba's a country. Belize is a country. I don't see why the Maldives shouldn't be a country.

Plus, they've achieved democracy -- at least for the present. And that's no mean feat.

Maldives... you're in!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010




We come at last to Lesotho.

As every schoolchild knows, it was a Lesothonian ruler who built the pyramids.

Lesothonian scientists went on to invent the telescope, the steam engine and penicillin.

In the nineteenth century, Lesotho fought three great wars with the United States. Lesotho lost once but won twice.

More recently, the global recession of 2008 never became a full-scale depression in large part thanks to the stability of the Lesotho dollar and the quick action by Lesothonian authorities to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

Okay, I made all that up.

Lesotho, surely, does not exist.


Welcome back to Africa. Feels like we never left!

As you can see, Lesotho is a small enclave inside South Africa.

Note to Africans in general: please stop creating nations inside the borders of other nations. It's confusing.

Like everywhere else in Africa, Lesotho is a desperate, dire place. Its population of two million is fairly stranded at the highest elevation of any country on Earth, in a region almost entirely bereft of natural resources. Oh, and a quarter of the adult population has the HIV virus.

Times are tough in Lesotho. They always have been.


In the nineteenth century, Lesotho fought wars against the nearby Boers -- Dutch farmers who planted roots in South Africa -- and the British, eventually becoming a British protectorate in 1868.

Thirteen years later, the British attempted to exert control over their protectorate by asking the locals to turn over their firearms. This assertion of authority worked about as well as it did in the American Colonies a hundred years before. The ensuing "Gun War," as it is called -- it was really a guerilla insurgency -- resulted in a negotiated peace favorable to the Lesothonians. The Brits had learned to stay out of Lesotho's internal affairs.

Events proceeded in Lesotho as they had for millennia, with very little progress and very little change. It was and is a largely tribal confederation of peoples with no real connection to the modern world.

In 1966, England realized it still owned Lesotho and promptly granted them their independence.

Elections were held, but they were bogus then as now, and power went to the victor of the latest military coup.

South African troops were foolish enough to get involved in internal fighting subsequent to the 1998 elections. The South Africans arrived with the intention of restoring peace, but in a tone-deaf public relations move, they saw fit to swap out the flag of Lesotho over the presidential palace with the flag of South Africa.

Cue riots and renewed fighting. The next year the South Africans fled and haven't been back since.

The current strongman in charge of the country is Prime Minister Pakalitha Bethuel Mosisili.

He is not unusually brutal or corrupt -- and he looks good in blue! -- but his country is incredibly poor, backward and disease-stricken. And there doesn't seem to be much anyone can do about it.


Grim, obviously.

While the international effort to combat AIDS in Africa has been commendable, Lesotho presents unique challenges since it is so remote in terms of elevation and a lack of modern roadways.

As a consequence, AIDS can be expected to go on ravaging the population for some time to come.

Lesotho's geographical and cultural isolation makes it unlikely its national circumstances will change in any profound way for, I would say, the next thousand years or so.

Profligate commerce with the rest of the world is such an advantage -- from the days of the ancient Athenians to the present -- and what a disadvantage isolation is. Isolated countries are poor, corrupt and uneducated. The vibrant, progressive countries are the ones whose citizens can be found anywhere on the globe.

Travel really does broaden the mind.


Because I am going to think of it as South Africa's coat pocket.


No! It should try to merge with South Africa and become the Alabama to South Africa's United States.

No offense to Alabama. Or Lesotho.

Saturday, March 20, 2010



I'd get it right.

But I'd be cheating.

After seeing that Kiribati was the next entry in the Informal Guide, but before sitting down to write about it, I accidentally came across a reference to the country on the back cover of a travel book called "The Sex Lives of Cannibals."

Yes, I'm a sucker for a catchy title.

And I now know Kiribati is an island nation in the south Pacific. We can therefore proceed with a few hard facts about the place, without pausing for my customary guess at its location.

Hey, at least we're out of Africa.


The Kiribati islands are located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Technically this places them in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

The nation is composed of three island groups. There are 33 islands total.

21 of which are inhabited.

The aggregate population: 99,000.

And it's too many. Overcrowding has been a problem. In 1988, 4,700 residents of the main island group began resettlement onto less-populated islands.

Ethnically, the I-Kiribati, as they call themselves, are Micronesians. I don't really know what this means. I do know they live in villages with populations between 50 and 3,000.

These islands are SMALL.


The Kiribati Islands -- formerly known as the Gilbert Islands for their British discoverer -- became a UK protectorate in 1892...

...a colony in 1915...

...and suffered forcible seizure by the Japanese in 1941.

Two years later, the islands of Makin and Tarawa were fiercely fought over. American forces suffered almost two thousand deaths in the course of wiping out the Japanese garrison of five thousand soldiers.

The gruesome story is chronicled in William Manchester's brilliant Pacific War memoir, "Goodbye, Darkness."

In 1971, the UK granted the Gilbert islands a measure of autonomy, followed in 1979 by full independence under the new name of Kiribati.

Which, by the way, is pronounced keer-ree-bahss.

Didn't see that one coming, did you?


Kiribati has elections, but with a tiny population and a tiny economy there isn't much for government to do.

In 2003, Anote Tong narrowly defeated his older brother, Harry, in presidential elections.

Like I said, this is a SMALL country.


The Kiribati islands are flat and only about a meter above sea level.

Guess what that means?

When ocean levels rise -- which they are already in the process of doing -- Kiribati will be the first nation to go completely underwater. That oughta happen by the end of the century. Before then, of course, salination from encroaching seawater will poison wells and strangle vegetation.

The long-term prognosis for Kiribati:

Not good.


Well, I'm not going to have to. This is Kiribati in the future:


It's a remote, insignificant little outcropping soon to be wiped off the map by global warming. I really don't feel like piling on.

So as long as it remains above water, I say sure, it should be a country.

Good luck to it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010



Hmmm. I know where New Guinea is. Shoot, that's a lie. I don't know where it is. I know it exists. I've heard of it.

Guinea-Bissau? I have not heard of that.

Bissau. Sounds a bit like Nassau. That's an island in the Caribbean, I think. I'm going to guess that Guinea-Bissau is also an island in the Caribbean.

"I'm taking a vacation next month." "Where are you going?" "Guinea-Bissau!" Damn. That sounds wrong.

I'll stick to my guns, though. Guinea-Bissau is an island in the Caribbean.



Practically every "country you've never heard of" hails from Africa.

And Guinea-Bissau is one of 'em.

This is especially embarrassing since Guinea-Bissau is only about a hundred miles south of my last entry, the Gambia. Evidently when I was learning about the Gambia, I didn't learn much about its neighbors.

Time to start!

First let's clear up some of my wild guesses from preceding paragraphs. New Guinea, it turns out, is a country off the north coast of Australia. It shares an island with the sovereign nation of Papua New Guinea. Yes, that means there's New Guinea on one side of the island and Papua New Guinea on the other. Let's not think about that too much.

Nassau, meanwhile, is not an island in the Caribbean. It's the capital city of the Bahamas, which is of course an island group in the Caribbean. Partial credit.

Confusing things is the fact that the country we are considering now -- Guinea-Bissau -- is bordered along the east and south by a larger nation called...


These are separate nations largely because, for several centuries, the French owned the land now called Guinea and the Portugeuese owned the land called Guinea-Bissau. When independence came round for these erstwhile colonies -- in 1958 for Guinea, 1974 for Guinea-Bissau -- they had been politically separate so long it made little sense to unite.

Which goes to show how arbitrary and illogical the national boundaries that separate countries across Africa really are. Once upon a time, European powers drew lines between colonies that were based on expediency and what they could wrest from their European rivals. Unfortunately, those lines solidified into permanent borders, and when the Europeans either left or were ejected, those damn lines created -- and continue to create -- all sorts of problems for African political stability and economic development.

It is not of course fair to blame all Africa's problems on their former European masters. Africa's ratio of functioning nations to primitive despotic kingdoms -- only a handful of the former and about 40 of the latter -- show a jarring inability to forge a national identity based on anything other than what group of thugs currently has the most guns at any given moment.

Why Africans can't get the hang of modern nationhood and the economic, cultural and military advantages it confers is a big mystery. Everyone's got theories but no one really knows why a large group of people in one part of the world act one way, whereas a large group of people in another act another way. I imagine there are hundreds of reasons. Maybe thousands. Maybe millions.

I also imagine that, like all things, the current state of affairs will not remain forever unchanged. Africa's near-term future looks abominable, but who can say what the long-term future will bring?

Such questions are fortunately beyond the scope of the Informal Guide, so let's get back to Guinea-Bissau.

In 1956, with help from the bad guy nations of the world (at least at the time!) -- Cuba, China and the Soviet Union -- a revolutionary group in Guinea-Bissau began a slow but effective guerilla campaign against Portuguese leadership.

This campaign gained ground steadily over the course of two decades, but what finally decided the issue was a military coup not in Guinea-Bissau, but in Portugal itself.

The 1974 Carnation Revolution put an end to the last fascist dictatorship in Europe. Amazingly it was a non-violent revolution, wherein the people of Portugal joined elements of the military to hold aloft red carnations -- red symbolizing socialism -- in the streets of Lisbon, bringing business to a standstill and the ruling regime to an end.

Also brought to an end was the centuries-old Portuguese empire. The new govenment ceded independence to all its former territories, among them Guinea-Bissau.


Guinea-Bissau handled its independence poorly.

The first action of the guerilla movement now in charge was the mass slaughter of Guinea-Bissauians who had fought alongside the Portuguese.

For the next couple decades the country was ruled -- badly -- by a military council who couldn't plausibly be considered at the cutting edge of global statecraft.

In 1994 the nation's first elections were held. They were entirely bogus, and the military strongman already running the country was given a very thin cloak of legitimacy. His name was Joao Bernardo Vieira.

A brief civil war broke out within the military in 1998. As a consequence, Vieira allowed himself to lose the next presidential election in 2000, but to the surprise of no one, the military stepped in three years later to depose the new president for ineffectiveness.

The next cycle of elections in 2005 brought -- yep! -- old hand Vieira back to the presidency.

But evidently he didn't have the entire military behind him. On the night of March 2, 2009 he was killed by a group of soldiers. The coroner concluded Vieira was "savagely beaten before being finished off with several bullets."

Vieira was given a state funeral eight days later. No foreign leaders were present.




No. And I bet in a hundred years it isn't. Africa needs to eventually find its way out of the morass of violence and corruption it's currently mired in. How it will achieve that is unclear, but I expect it will result in the wholesale redrawing of borders.

But what do I know?

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Gambia


Thus far I've learned that Africa and Asia are my best bets. I suppose if a country were in my own hemisphere I'd have heard of it.

Then again, this is me we're talking about. I probably can't name all fifty U.S. states. With that in mind, I'm going to guess The Gambia is in my own western hemisphere. I'm going to guess it's in South America. It would have to reside at the extreme southern tip of the continent, as far from my present California location as it can possibly be while remaining inside the hemisphere.

Because I am certain I have never heard of it.


It's in Africa. From now on I suppose I'll have no choice but to guess Africa. Man, I don't know anything about that continent.

It's an oddly shaped thing, isn't it?

The motto of The Gambia is "Progress, Peace, Prosperity." So far, so good. I support all three of those things.

It's "The Gambia" and not just "Gambia" because its name derives from the name of its river, which, as you can see, dominates the country. River names typically have a definite article in front of them, and this convention has carried over to the country's name. What this means is, the river "The Gambia" is first and foremost what the country "The Gambia" is all about.

Well, that and slave-trading.


The first things written about The Gambia come from Arab merchants in the ninth and tenth centuries. These merchants established the first large communities. They brought Islam with them, a religion that has remained in place to the present day.

In between now and then, of course, hungry European powers gobbled the country up, changed its borders a few times, and spit it out.

The final border was settled in 1880 between Britain, who administered The Gambia as a colony, and France, who administered the surrounding Senegal.


Remember reading about the Triangle Trade in school? That was the economic phenomenon whereby slaves were sent from Africa to the New World, where they labored to produce cash crops like sugar, which was then sent to Europe where it was manufactured into finished goods (in sugar's case the finished product might be rum,) which were then sent to Africa to pay for more slaves.

As the following map shows, the African corner of the Triangle Trade lands real close to The Gambia. Coastal access via a river that ran deep inland made The Gambia a natural way station for shipments of slaves.

Nowadays, of course, slavery no longer exists. Sort of. More on this in a second.


Since independence (1965), the Gambia has had only two rulers.

The first, President Dawda Jawara, was "re-elected" five times. While not a model democrat, he had the virtue of not being especially sadistic or deranged.

Unfortunately, his reign ended in a military coup in 1994, and the man who replaced him, Yahya Jammeh, has never been accused of "not being especially sadistic or deranged."


Where to start with this guy?

He doesn't like gay people. Maybe we'll start there.

Homosexuality -- which in the Gambia means male/male sex only; they're officially okay with lesbianism -- has long been outlawed, but in 2008 Jammeh really turned up the heat, promising to personally decapitate any gays that were caught. It's nice to see some enthusiasm from an elected official! Recently he has vowed to make the Gambia's anti-homosexuality laws "stricter than Iran's." That's going to be hard, but if anyone can do it, it's Yahya Jammeh.

AIDS is of course a huge problem for The Gambia, but in 2007 Jammeh claimed that he personally discovered a cure for AIDS (and asthma!) with a secret herbal formula. Except for the fact that it isn't true, this is wonderful news for the people of the Gambia.

Jammeh's portrait is draped everywhere in Banjul, the capital city, much after the style of Mao or Stalin. This is appallingly arrogant but also aesthetically displeasing, due to Jammeh's utter lack of physical attractiveness.

Hard as this may to believe, corruption is rife in Jammeh's administration.

Not only does Jammeh own dozens of farms throughout the country, all citizens of The Gambia are expected to spend several days per year working those farms for Jammeh. He calls this work a donation of free labor. It's really forced servitude, because men with guns notice if you fail to donate your free labor.

Bizarrely, Jammeh continues to win election after election by landslide margins.

It's almost enough to make one wonder if those elections are entirely legit.


The Gambian pouched rat is named for its pouch-like cheeks, which make it resemble a cute hamster, rather than the standard house rat.

Befitting its cute appearance, the Gambian pouched rat is friendly and gentle, so much so that demand exists for it as an exotic pet.

Furthermore, its sense of smell is so keen it has been used to sniff out landmines that cover much of Africa's war-torn terrain. The Belgian company that uses the rats in this fashion calls them HeroRATS.

And so will I!

On the down side, escaped HeroRATS have recently invaded ecosystems in the Florida Keys, creating their own breeding pool and posing a threat to the local ecology.

Dammit, the Gambia!


It's an oddly-shaped slave state run by a lunatic.

What's not to remember?


Well, no. Just look at it.

In an ideal world, the United States would send a detachment of marines to depose the crazy man treating The Gambia like an especially large estate he happens to own. The Gambia's strange borders would then be wiped off the map and the "country" would just become the interior of Senegal.

Can I get a raise of hands on this?

Monday, November 30, 2009



I'd be at my usual loss. I'm not even sure how to pronounce this name. Do I stress the first syllable or the second? I'm going to go with the second. Ga-BAHN.

And I think it's on a peninsula. Somewhere.

I'm definitely seeing a peninsula.


I was right about the pronunciation but wrong about the peninsula. Gabon (Ga-BAHN, or Ga-BO if you know a bit of French) is a large-ish nation in West Africa.

Though every imperial power in Europe trawled through Gabon at one point or other, it was the French who made things legal in 1885. France held official sway until 1960 when Gabon declared its independence, but as we shall see, the French (and French rule) never really left.

Maybe this isn't a fact, but it's certainly a well-supported opinion: Gabon is physically a beautiful country.

Four-fifths of its area is covered in tropical forest, which is fed by a thousand mile long river called the Ogooue.

For this reason, tourism is a serious and growing business in Gabon.

In addition to lush natural beauty, Gabon is blessed with tremendous natural resources, including rich deposits of manganese, a metal that makes steel rust-resistant, and...

Oil. Lots and lots of oil.

Revenues from Gabon's oil industry account for more than half the country's GDP. Which is why the French are still there.

In exchange for trade policies favorable to French interests, the French military occupies a permanent base in the capital city named, in a nice bit of irony, Libreville.

French influence in Gabon extends to economic and political spheres as well, which is one reason why Gabon has been so stable through recent decades. Since 1960 there has been precisely one coup attempt, in 1964, which was immediately put down by French forces who reinstated President Leon M'ba.

When M'ba died in 1967 he was succeeded by a chap named Omar Bongo Ondimba, who proceeded to win election after election -- incredibly! -- for the next forty years.

Also incredibly, he was close friends with every French president during that time period and lived in the humble residence shown here:

Bongo died in the summer of 2009. He was succeeded in office by -- you're not going to believe this! -- by his son, Ali Ben Bongo, who also has close ties with the French.

Following these election results, violence broke out in Libreville and someone set fire to the French consulate. The fire was later put out and business resumes as usual in Gabon. There's even a word for the French policy of puppeteering in Africa. It's called "Francafrique."


Albert Schweitzer's famous hospital was established in Gabon. It continues to function today.

Gabon has a relatively low population density, just one and a half million people spread over a region the size of Colorado. Combined with its abundant natural resources, the per capita wealth and concomitant standard of living in Gabon is better than most elsewhere in Africa. Like all oil countries, however, there is a vast disparity between rich and poor.

Gabon has a huge AIDS problem. 5.9 percent of the adult population has the virus.

Despite Gabon's relative prosperity, ineptitude and corruption means the road system outside the major cities is precarious at best and impassable at worst. All-terrain vehicles are the norm for ground travel.

Hot, hot, hot! Work in Gabon stops between noon and three because of the heat and general lack of air conditioning.

The tv show "Survivor" held its 17th season in Gabon last year. Bob won the last vote-off over Susie by a Tribal Council decision of 4-3.


Because of its young and attractive First Couple:

Oops, I meant


I don't know if it's a country now, to be honest with you. It seems more like a province of France.

But since African countries without close ties to patriarchal European powers seem to fare disastrously instead of just badly, I can't bring myself to wish for true Gabonese independence. As far as tyrants go, you can do a lot worse than the French.

Just ask Uganda.

Thursday, November 26, 2009



I'd be a step ahead of the game, because in my last entry ("Djibouti") I learned that neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a war in the late nineties.

So without having to guess, I already know a couple things about Eritrea: 1) it's in northeast Africa and 2) it doesn't get along with Ethiopia.

But I still don't know who won the war or why they were fighting. And I don't know how I'm supposed to remember Eritrea in the future.


Eritrea is a hot strip of desert (which sounds sexier than it is) along the Red Sea.

It's got a population of five and a half million, an economy that's tied to agriculture and a habit of getting into fights with its neighbors.

Originally an Italian colony, Eritrea was taken by the British during World War Two. Which means the British obtained a colony just as they were about to get out of the colony business. In 1950 they did what must have seemed logical at the time: they passed Eritrea off to Ethiopia, a much larger nation which could make good economic use of Eritrea's long coastline.

Turns out, Eritrea had other ideas.

Not thrilled with being passed around like a bowl of chips, and even less thrilled by what it considered Ethiopia's bullying attitude, Eritrea objected to Ethiopia's move toward formal annexation in 1962.

In fact, Eritrea objected so much, it launched a thirty-year war against its large neighbor.


The prolonged insurgency experienced many ups and downs, but things took a permanent upward swing when the Ethiopians went Marxist in the seventies and started getting support from the inept Soviet military.

With Soviet support, the new Ethiopian Marxists used gas and napalm, committed a variety of atrocities against civilians and generally made everyone in the area despise them, shifting regional support toward Eritrea.

I miss the Soviets, don't you?

In 1985, Eritrean commandoes had a Hollywood moment, infiltrating a Soviet/Ethiopian air force base and destroying thirty aircraft while suffering only a single casualty.

Three years later the war was essentially decided when the Ethiopians launched an attack on the Eritrean town of Afabet and, in one of the few set-piece battles of the war, lost a third of their army and ran for their lives.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ethiopian Marxism soon followed and the UN formally recognized Eritrean independence.


Since then, Eritrea has been known for running a totalitarian state, torturing political prisoners, eradicating all freedom of expression and sponsoring terrorism whenever and wherever it can.

In August, Hillary Clinton called out the country for supplying weapons to a terrorist group in Somalia. The U.S. is currently considering economic sanctions.

Genocidal neighbor Sudan agrees that Eritrea gives aid to terrorists. Since 2002 they've consistently accused Eritrea of plotting to overthrow the Sudanese government. The border between the two countries is now completely closed.

In 1995 Eritrea launched an attack on Yemenese troops over possession of the Hannish Islands in the Red Sea. A court of arbitration later ruled that the Hannish Islands belong exclusively to Yemen, which everyone already knew.

Another burst of violence occurred when Eritrea attacked Djiboutian troops along their mutual border in 2008. This attack was motivated in part by Djibouti's growing links to Ethiopia whom, as we know, Eritrea hates.

Which brings us to that 1998 war with Ethiopia that attracted my attention in the first place.


The war started when Eritrean troops crossed into Ethiopian territory and started shooting up the place. They justified the attack by claiming prior ownership of the town of Badme, although as we have seen, the Eritreans are fond of claiming ownership of things whether or not they have a case.

The conflict that followed was brutal, involving lots of trench warfare (not exactly cutting-edge militaries here) and costing upwards of 100,000 lives in combined losses. At the end of it all, Ethiopia occupied a quarter of Eritrean territory and Eritrea was waving the white flag.

A demilitarized zone was established between the two countries, but in 2005 Eritrea forced western peacekeepers out of the area.

If I were Ethiopia, I would sleep with one eye open.


Yordanos Gidey, an Eritrean by birth, relocated to the United States as a child, attended Purdue University and finished 3rd in the 2007-2008 Miss Africa USA Pageant held in Norcross, Georgia.

Good for her!


Because of its behavioral problems. Eritrea's like a dog that was abused as a puppy and now bites anyone who gets near it.


Well, it's a badly-behaved country, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be a country at all. It should be a BETTER country, though.