My Top 20 Reads of 2017

This year, I’ve read hundreds of articles, covering a wide range of themes all linked in some way to global current affairs – from investment and economics, to politics and philosophy. Here’s a list of my top 20 reads of 2017. Enjoy!

Why I left my liberal London tribe, by David Goodhart (FT Weekend Life & Arts) *paywall*
“The value divides in British society that led to Brexit, and may now break up the United Kingdom, stem from the emergence in the past generation of two big value clusters: the educated, mobile people who see the world from “Anywhere” and who value autonomy and fluidity, versus the more rooted, generally less well-educated people who see the world from “Somewhere” and prioritise group attachments and security. There are many subdivisions within both groups, of course, as well as a large “inbetweener” group. Anywheres tend to be more mobile than Somewheres, their careers often sucking them into London for a period. Yet more than 60 per cent of British people still live within 20 miles of where they lived when aged 14.”

From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?, by Ian Leslie (The New Statesman)
“The Pay-go economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. Usually the closer our relationships with objects, the closer our relationships are with people.”

Scandalized Reading, by Jessica Hooten Wilson (Fathom Mag)
“The majority of Christians […] read many more self-help and Christian living books than literature. But if we look at the example of the Son of God himself, we don’t see him speaking on how to make friends and influence people or seven methods of effective discipleship. Rather, he made his ministry about telling stories and living as the hero of a true story. Christ is the Word. The Bible is a story. If Christians are not reading stories, they are neglecting one of the charges of the gospel.”

Overcoming Your Demons, by Morgan Housel (Collaborative Fund blog)
“Stuttering seems uncommon [because] most stutterers don’t talk much. Silence is the perfect disguise. The clenched jaw, the contorted face, the awkward rapid repetitions of sounds as you struggle through words – veteran stutterers will move mountains to avoid these situations, and they’re easily avoided by not talking.”

Artificial intelligence: Silicon Valley’s new deity, by Leslie Hook (FT Magazine) *paywall*
“The quest for immortality is […] taken seriously in the Bay Area, partly because a number of billionaires are investing heavily in research to extend their own lives. Most of the focus is on the question of how to accomplish this (ideas include cloning yourself, then using the blood of the younger clone to nourish your older body). But few discuss the spiritual implications of these projects. If the technology we create surpasses us in intelligence, does it ever have a soul? And if humans live for a very long time, or indeed for ever, do they ever become gods?”

No more water for water-carrier, by Alex Magaisa (The Big Saturday Read blog)
“Mnangagwa doesn’t seem to have the courage to walk away. He is probably waiting for Mugabe to pronounce direct judgment upon him. There is no culture of resigning in [Zimbabwe’s] ZANU PF. Those on the gravy train do not like stepping off. They do not know how to survive outside the party. They are scared of life outside ZANU PF, a fact that Mnangagwa himself has preached before at political rallies.”

How ‘no deal’ could bring Britain to a halt, by Chris Giles (The Financial Times) *paywall*
“David Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary, has expressed confidence that Britain will strike a deal with the EU which would provide a smooth path to new arrangements with Brussels rather than a disruptive change. However, a no deal scenario would be disruptive because of the laws governing Britain’s relationship with the EU would cease immediately. “Calling it a legal vacuum would be underplaying where we would be,” says Malcolm Barr, economist at JPMorgan. “I think there would be a significant contraction in GDP.””

Syria: a tale of three cities, by Erika Solomon (FT Magazine) *paywall*
“In Assad’s Syria, people are not only divided from the rest of the country, but from within. The war is not yet over, but his presumed victory has sparked fresh reflections on the fight. What did it mean? How will people heal? Can they even come together again? Across the country, you hear a constant exchange of stories about suffering, loss and survival – a national currency for a society grappling with incomprehensible change.”

China missionaries seek converts along the Belt and Road, by Tom Hancock (The Financial Times) *paywall*
“Beijing’s Zion church is one of dozens in the country to have sent missionaries overseas, as evangelical Christians follow their country’s huge infrastructure push into Southeast Asia and the Middle East, creating a dilemma for the officially atheist Communist party. There are about 1,000 Chinese missionaries outside the country, compared with virtually none a decade ago, according to churches and academics. Church leaders hope to increase their number to 20,000 by the end of the next decade. Those leaders say missionary activity is a natural extension of China’s Protestant movement, which has grown rapidly in recent decades and now numbers about 100m.”

To Understand ‘Brexit,’ Look to Britain’s Tabloids, by Katrin Bennhold (The New York Times)
“The campaign was marked by a relentless drip of anti-immigration rhetoric and a couple of big lies that stuck: the 350 million pounds (about $450 million at current rates) that Britain paid to the European Union every week (false) and the prospect of millions of Turks’ making their way to Britain if it stayed in the union (Turkey is not joining the bloc). Two years ago, the United Nations urged Britain to deal with hate speech in its newspapers, specifically citing a column in The Sun that compared migrants to cockroaches and the norovirus. The tabloids say they merely reflect the concerns and fears of their readers. But their critics say they poison the debate by playing to people’s worst instincts and prejudices, distorting facts and creating a propaganda ramp that mainstreams intolerance and shapes policy.”

What kind of liberal society do we want? by Tim Farron (Theos Think Tank blog)
“If you say you favour diversity and pluralism, then you must oppose all attempts at assimilation and forced conformity.  You may like the idea that people will think the same as you, but you must not aim to build a society where you engineer that via legal or social pressure.  And it is especially on this latter point that liberalism is at risk.”

George Osborne’s revenge, by Ed Caesar (Esquire)
“At a little after 6.30, nearly every weekday morning, George Osborne — 46 years old, tall, rich, boyish, tieless — takes the bus from Notting Hill in west London, where he lives, to Kensington High Street, where he works, orders his breakfast to take away from Leon, arrives at the marbled and airy headquarters of the London Evening Standard, takes the lift to the second floor, enters his corner office, and sets about destroying his political enemies.”

Eat, pray, live: The Lagos megachurches building their own cities, by Ruth MacLean (The Guardian)
“Throughout southern Nigeria, the landscape is permeated by Christianity of one kind or another. Billboards showing couples staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, which appear at first glance to be advertising clothes or condoms, turn out to be for a pentecostal church. Taxi drivers play knock-off CDs of their favourite pastor’s sermons on repeat, memorising salient lines. “I’m a Winner,” read the bumper stickers that adorn the fancier cars, declaring their owners’ allegiance to Winners’ Chapel, a grand white megachurch whose base, Canaanland in the Ota region, is all neat fences and manicured lawns. “Where I’m from, people long for tractors to farm with. Here they just use them to cut grass,” exclaims one visitor, driving through Heaven’s Gate. It is a world away from the throng of people, fumes and rubbish outside.”

Who’s afraid of a secular state? by Nick Spencer (Theos Think Tank blog)
“Secularist countries are rarely happy ones; or, more precisely, rarely happy with being secular. The ideological bloodlessness that is its greatest strength is also secularism’s biggest weakness. Fighting for equal fairness for all makes a great street banner. Human nature finds it a harder task. Those of a more naïve humanist bent, whose anthropology recognises only human goodness and dismisses selfishness as skin deep and cultural, often protest at this, but history is not on their side. Humans are tribal animals. They have strong identities. They are not animals instinctively inclined to arbitrate objectively between tribes or to fight for the rights of other tribal members. We can and we do, but it can often feel like hauling yourself up by your moral bootstraps. We are not naturally secular and, as a result, secular societies often struggle with simmering identity issues.”

Why religion is not going away and science will not destroy it, by Peter Harrison (Aeon blog)
“Global secularisation is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science. The thesis that ‘science causes secularisation’ simply fails the empirical test, and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy. The science and secularism pairing is so awkward that it raises the question: why did anyone think otherwise?”

Zambia: Lungu’s state capture is so complete he barely needs to pretend, by Sishuwa Sishuwa (African Arguments blog)
“Lungu has many political and business figures around him, many of whom were marginalised under the late President Sata but have flourished under the new president. This group feels its time in the corridors of power has been too brief thus far and wants more time to accumulate through the state. They can see clearly how those they replaced are now languishing. Senior government and ruling party figures say that this circle has captured virtually all state institutions. The term “state capture” is topical in South Africa, but applies fully to the situation in Zambia too.”

Reflections on the Ten Attributes of Great Investors
, by Michael J. Mauboussin, Dan Callahan, and Darius Majd (Credit Suisse)
“We all walk around with views of the world that we believe are correct. You are compelled to change your mind only when you confront reality that disconfirms your beliefs. The easiest way to avoid the sensation of being wrong is to fall for the confirmation bias. With confirmation bias, you seek information that confirms your view and interpret ambiguous information in a way that is favorable to your belief. Consistency allows you to stop thinking about an issue and to avoid change as a consequence of reason. But great investors do two things that most of us do not. They seek information or views that are different than their own and they update their beliefs when the evidence suggests they should. Neither task is easy.”

How to read Financial News, Morgan Housel (Collaborative Fund blog)
“Every piece of financial news you read should be filtered by asking the question, “Will I still care about this in a year? Five years? Ten years?” The goal of information should be to help you make better decisions between now and the end of your ultimate goals. Read old news and you’ll quickly see that the life expectancy of your goals is higher than that of the vast majority of headlines.”

Protect Africans from unscrupulous auditors, by Jude Fejokwu (The Africa Report)
“Auditors are paid by their clients, but the investing public is meant to believe that audited financial statements meet the required standards of honesty and transparency. History tells us, however, that audit firms’ first loyalty is to the paying client. Africa needs better auditors if its stock exchanges are to become developed markets, attracting substantive local investment.”

The Four Fundamental Skills of All Investing, by Morgan Housel (Collaborative Fund blog)
“If investing were only about numbers, no one would be good at it, because computers would arbitrage away all opportunities. And if it were only about psychology, no one would be good at it, because every investor has different, arbitrary, goals and markets would never coalesce around something objective. Good investing is some part analytical and some part psychological. An art and a science. The trick is knowing when which skill is necessary, and how one affects the other.”

That’s it!

Have a wonderful Christmas and best wishes for the New Year!

Chipo.

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“The Peaceful Nation” – Zambia’s Most Common Story About Itself (a reflection)

Every nation on earth has a set of stories about itself that it tells itself. These tales are passed down from generation to generation through food, music, and art, as well as through government-led social, economic, and foreign policies. From America’s “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” to South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation”, these national narratives deepen the people’s sense of identity and belonging, and they set clear markers which distinguish them from other nations. Often, these stories are rooted in some historical event: a victorious war, or some widely celebrated invention. They can also be rooted in a person (some national hero), a key natural resource, or the physical landscape.

Zambia, my homeland, has its own set of stories. Perhaps the most common is “the peaceful nation” narrative. The idea of Zambia as an inherently “peaceful” place is one we have truly internalised – it’s what we believe we are at our core. The narrative isn’t just aspirational, it even informs public policy. Zambia as a “peaceful nation” is something we try to protect at home and sell to investors abroad.

But when last did we pause to reflect on how this idea squares up with day-to-day reality? Is it possible for “peace” in Zambia to mean so much more than just the absence of armed conflict? And who benefits and who loses out from this narrative as we have it today?

Zambia as a ‘haven of peace’ is an idea that has a lot of weight behind it.

Zambians are among the warmest and friendliest people anywhere on earth. We’ve never experienced civil war despite our rich cultural diversity. And during Southern Africa’s fights for independence, many liberation leaders from across the region were exiled to Zambia. This role cost us greatly. We literally took bullets (bombs, too) for our neighbours and the toll on our economy and way of life was considerable. Even as recently as the mid-1990s, Zambia was still acting as an important regional player in trying to bring an end to the armed conflicts in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).

But while this evidence supports “the peaceful nation” narrative, other evidence doesn’t.

Over the years we have taken these noble acts of peace-building and stretched them. “Protecting the peace we’ve enjoyed since Independence” is a well-worn phrase used by successive governments to quell debate and dissent.

What’s so peaceful about that?

And what’s peaceful about economic injustice? Corruption? A crumbling education system? Desperately poor public health infrastructure?

Most Zambians face unthinkable injustices every single day. Would they happily agree that being part of “the peaceful nation” of Zambia has served them well over the years? “Peace” is not just the absence of armed conflict, it’s so much more than that.

The prolonged absence of armed conflict is a wonderful thing, something we should be so thankful for. But I refuse to settle for “peace” in the way that the politicians tell me to – by keeping quiet and agreeing to be told what to think. Ben Okri, the Nigerian writer, says:

‘If nations tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face reality, they will free their histories for future flowerings.’

We have a choice; to celebrate and build upon what is true about Zambia’s “peace” narrative but also to face down the lies. Learning to share together in our nation’s diversity – its traditional ceremonies, food, music, art, languages, politics – provides us with a much better chance of holding together than empty, recycled rhetoric ever will.

© Chipo Muwowo, July 2017.

Cover image by Gary Bernard, Getty Images.

Kaunda on human nature and my own thoughts on ‘Shalom’…

Kenneth Kaunda (affectionately known as ‘KK’) was Zambia’s first President. I’m currently reading a book he wrote in 1980 called Kaunda on Violence. In it, he wrestles deeply with the idea of peaceful protest in the face of violent oppression. As one of the key leaders of Zambia’s independence movement against minority British rule, the consequences of his thought processes and eventual actions were all to real – for the movement but also for the future independent country he hoped to lead.

KK is an intellectual and a pragmatist. In the book, he does history, political theory, philosophy and theology. He concludes that pacifism, though often viewed as a non-violent act, can in fact lead to violent consequences with those it aims to protect actually getting hurt. He comes to the view that the violence of war is necessary and acceptable some of the time. The deep and difficult questions he asks about motives and consequences often focus on himself; he’s very aware of his own propensity to do violence and explain it away. But of ours too.

This reality exists all of the time regardless of which side we’re on in any political argument. This is one thing we’re truly all in together. In the two paragraphs below, KK offers piercing analysis of the human condition. I’ve paraphrased some sentences to make them more easily understandable:

I am not suggesting that the tactics of violence and those of non-violence [e.g. sanctions] are indistinguishable. Nor do I think that because a revolutionary act will inevitably harm somebody, it doesn’t matter if we do harm indiscriminately. I seek only to dispel the illusion of innocence, for no fanaticism is so dangerous in politics as that which assumes inherent human goodness.

[…]

By all means we need those who bring to bear upon Southern Africa’s problems qualities of idealism and courage but they must be yoked in double harness with a healthy scepticism, close observation of human affairs and above all, a deep understanding of the dark forces at work in one’s own heart. For we ourselves are part of the battlefield on which great issues are being fought out.

Wow. A healthy scepticism? Dark forces in one’s own heart? This is deep. It’s uncomfortable!

KK wrote this nearly 40 years ago but it still rings true today; painfully so. It’s so hard for us to zoom out and look at ourselves with the honest clarity he presents here. Doing so would be unbearable and greatly disconcerting. Nobody wants to do it – I don’t. But it’s reality.

It seems we’re incapable of living out our greatest and highest ideals. A big part of the problem is that we’re blind to our own smugness and pride and our natural inclination for folly. Yes, we occasionally surprise ourselves by turning things the right way up but that’s not the normal day-to-day human experience. We don’t have to look far to see that this is true.

We’re saddled with a great weight that can’t be shaken off, like a millstone around our necks. We’re shackled and our attempts to break free prove fruitless. We long for the permanent quenching of our arid souls. There’s a constant, resolute, even desperate striving to do better but enslavement to pride and vain glory derail us just when we think we’ve got going. We totally get the Apostle Paul when he says, For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

If we’re honest, to live life in this world is enslavement not freedom, emptiness not joy, brokenness not healing. But then the prophet Isaiah speaks of one who has come, and will come again, a Messiah who will bring freedom and healing like we’ve never felt before, joy like we’ve never tasted before. Isaiah says:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
  The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
  The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
  They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

They will neither harm nor destroy” – this is peace forever! Our propensity for folly will be righted, our failings forgotten, our thirst quenched by rivers that will never dry up, and behold, our future: one of feasting with others in brotherly love, sharing the finest foods and wine, and worshipping the one who made it all possible for us. We, his children, we who have said Sorry, Thank you, Please, will toast the Death of Death, toast the Death of Hate, toast the Death of Folly…forever!

This is what I’m holding out for.

True peace.

Shalom.

For the month of May, I’ve become a Daily Mail reader #FightTheEchoChamber

Since the start of May, I’ve been doing something I’ve never done before: I’ve been buying and reading the Daily Mail newspaper once a week. I plan to continue doing this for the rest of the month.

“Why?” you’re probably asking.

Well, the idea popped into my head a few weeks ago as I was reading a very different newspaper and my regular, the FT Weekend. As I sat there reading, I thought:

“This is nice. This is safe. What would rattle, even anger me, if I read it right now?”

“The Daily Mail,” came the reply!

I can’t stand most of what is printed in the Daily Mail but it’s popular – it’s Britain’s second most-read print publication after The Sun. Its website is the most popular English-language news site in the world. Whether I like it or not, many people I live close to, share the bus with, worship alongside, read it regularly – zealously, even.

I started to imagine the reasons for its popularity. Did people genuinely read it for its news? Are people really that obsessed with celebrity gossip, including the over 65s, the largest group of regular readers (45%)? Did readers enjoy being shouted at by Editor Paul Dacre through his headlines? How did they process the scaremongering, the hyperbole, the poison? I was intrigued.

It’s clear that all these questions reflect my negative view of the Daily Mail. And while I believe that a lot of my cynicism is justified, I remained curious about the paper and the people who read it. So, if you’re a regular reader of the Daily Mail, I’d really love to hear your thoughts. It would be refreshing to hear a positive case for the newspaper. And I hope it goes without saying: I’ll treat you with the utmost respect.

***

People read newspapers that express their worldview. Newspapers (which are consumer products at the end of the day) give readers pleasure and enjoyment, not just information. Often, this comes in the form of reinforcing ideas they already hold. And I’m no different. I enjoy the FT Weekend because of its centrist, internationalist, and pro-market stance. Among Britain’s newspapers, it comes the closest to representing where I’m at. But not just that: the FT does journalism well. Each issue of the weekend edition includes well-written, fascinating, and educative pieces from this country and elsewhere covering an array of themes: business, politics, technology, culture, and the arts. As a budding journalist, it’s a great source of inspiration.

Now regardless of the FT’s virtues, I read it because I (largely) agree with it and it (largely) agrees with me. Regardless of how right its/my ideas are, the FT and I have an “echo chamber” thing going on. In any democratic dispensation, and especially in the political environment we find ourselves in, this is problematic.

The political climate is so polarised, toxic even, that many of us aren’t hearing alternative voices. Not because all viewpoints are equally valid – no! But the people making those points are. They have an inherent and permanent worth that no one can take away. They are fellow citizens and they deserve to be heard. Yes, even Donald Trump!

His rise and the rise of other right-wing populists has taken us into new political territory – at least since the Second World War. In all this, it’s become painfully clear that we don’t know each other as well as we thought. The anger and bitterness is making us talk past each other like ships in the night. Harvard Professor Michael Sandel calls this “the lost art of democratic debate.

Recently, I was reflecting on this “echo chamber” phenomenon in my own life. As I’ve already said, I too have been living in a silo, not regularly encountering views that were odious to me, unwilling to step outside and view the world from the point of view of the other. I wrote:

“It feels like my daily life is one safe space. There’s very little to shock, to surprise, to disagree with. There’s hardly any room for the little Englander, the communist, the extreme liberal. If I’m honest, I spend most days cleaning, tidying, shining, and polishing my preconceived ideas like a chambermaid. An echo chambermaid.”

Regardless of your political persuasion, you’re most probably guilty of this too. We must all own up to it.

***

Glen Scrivener, a Christian evangelist and writer, observes: “The big problem with the world, according to the Bible, is not so much people doing wrong. It’s people who think that they are right. And if you are right, then everyone else has got to be wrong.”

One of the reasons for doing this project was to keep my own smugness and pride in check. In the current climate, I believe that we need to be willing to cross the aisle and try to see the world from the point of view of the other. That simple action is humbling.

But it’s also costly. One of the reasons for deciding to buy the paper and not just read it online or in a café was that I wanted to feel a bit of pain in all of this. I wanted it to cost me in a small way – and I don’t just mean £0.65 each week. Trying to see the world from the point of view of the other is painful.

With each issue I read, I’m looking for stories that are thought-provoking, interesting/informative, and weird. I’ll write something about the whole experience at the end of the month. In the mean time, I’ll be tweeting about it so do follow me!

And if you’re normally a Daily Mail reader, maybe pick up The Guardian tomorrow! Let me know how it goes 😉

An Echo Chambermaid

Openness is a virtue. This is our belief.

For progress to take place, for fresh ideas to flourish, for peace to reign, minds must be open. This is our creed.

The ability to look at the world from the point of view of Another is one of life’s greatest goods, so the liberal liturgical texts say.

I’m open-minded. Open to people of different colours, cultures, shapes and sizes. But open to what exactly?

Open to their right to exist? Yes.
Open to them enjoying life’s freedoms? Broadly, yes.
Open to them upending my life and ideas? If I’m honest, probably not!

The ability to look at the world from the point of view of Another is good and right. But what if I don’t like what I see?

I honestly can’t tell you when I last listened to a radio station, read a newspaper, attended a conference or festival that didn’t reinforce some idea I already held; or even made me feel surprised and vulnerable.

The ability to look at the world from the point view of Another is good and right. But do I really do it?

It feels like my daily life is one safe space. There’s very little to shock, to surprise, to disagree with. There’s hardly any room for the little Englander, the communist, the extreme liberal…

If I’m honest, I spend most days cleaning, tidying, shining and polishing my preconceived ideas like a chambermaid.

An echo chambermaid.

Book Recommendation: The Good Immigrant

The Good Immigrant is a rich and powerful collection of 21 readable and personal essays by 21 non-white British writers exploring what it means to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic in Britain today. These writers tell stories about trying to find their place in a world (read: country) where “the default is always white”. The book encompasses a broad and colourful sweep of narratives which include: a history of family names; ‘blackness’; being typecast as a terrorist whilst travelling; and TCK angst.

Continue reading “Book Recommendation: The Good Immigrant”

Mugabe’s people have had enough.

evan mawarire

In a moment of deep frustration this April, Evan Mawarire, a pastor based in Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare, set his camera to record. Draped in the Zimbabwean flag, the emotional 39-year-old looked into the lens and spoke for over 4 minutes about his weariness at what he saw as the government’s failures and broken promises of liberation.As he posted the video online, he could never have imagined the response. Within a day, the video had reportedly been viewed 120,000 times and soon the hashtag ‪#‎ThisFlag‬ was trending as other Zimbabweans emulated the pastor in posting their own grievances.

Continue reading “Mugabe’s people have had enough.”