Life in a microcosm

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The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.

Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way. – Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), an American evolutionary scientist

 

Browse more for what cultural icons define about the meaning of life in Brain Pickings.

‘We want our country’

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Of all British colonies in 20th century, Southern Rhodesia (later known to be Rhodesia, and lastly, after 1980, Zimbabwe) was considered one to be politically ‘very defiant’, in that other than adopting a system of majority rule, it unilaterally violated the agreement, reinstated a new government dominated by white settlers, and fought a costly, and uneasy, guerrilla war with black African combatants for nearly two decades, which would later significantly hamper its economic and social progress.

This was Rhodesia. When it proclaimed its Unilateral Declaration of Independence, abbreviated as UDI, in 1965, its population hardly exceeded 4 million. White settlers were even a smaller minority, with a number barely surpassing 220,000 (in a climax, it once reached slightly above 300,000, as many Britons migrated there in hope of more promising incomes, but now, under Mugabe’s terms, the figure is hardly above 50,000). An apartheid-like system was afterwards implemented in nearly all aspects of the country, with exclusive preferences for white people. Economy was nearly completely controlled by white-owned enterprises and commercial farms scattered across the country. Despite the  sanctions imposed by United Kingdom, United States, and numerous other UN member-states, Rhodesia remained an economically thriving nation, but one with extremely fragile social stability, thanks to its close relationship with apartheid-era South Africa at that time.

Nevertheless, Rhodesia suffered its first blow when Mozambique, its neighboring country, and also its strategic export-import location, announced secession from Portuguese rule, which later suffered from decades-long civil war. South Africa, its long-time trading partner, already worsened by its own internal problems after waves of sanctions, refused to assist the country any longer. Guerrilla war became increasingly deadly, with many white settlers’ commercial farms being their primary targets for ambushes. Many whites were killed in the middle of the battlefields fought between Rhodesian army and the rebels. It changed after 1980 election, by which Robert Mugabe, who, as they had long feared of his possible retaliation, became the president of the country later renamed as Zimbabwe. And it turns out Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is even, in countless times, much worse than Rhodesia had ever been.

 

This Time article, released in November 1965, provided us an in-depth understanding about Rhodesia, and the underlying problems resulting since its establishment. You can read the article in British Empire, a history blog specially dedicated to the history of the world’s largest colonial empire.

 

Excerpt:

 

The Rhodesians are determined that the blacks will never rule. Deep in their hearts, they believe that the first African government would murder them in their beds and drive them off the land. As Africa’s former colonies have been granted their freedom, the settlers have shaken their heads in dismay. They talk of the violence of the Congo, of the autocracy of Ghana, of Communist penetration everywhere, and of the fate of their cousins in Kenya. If the blacks get more freedom in Rhodesia, says one leading supporter of Smith, “there will be a Mau Mau here.”

The white man’s fate in the new black African nations has not been all that bad. Kenya’s Mau Mau terrorism stopped at the first signs that independence would be granted, and the brutal slaughters of the Congo are so far the exception in Africa rather than the rule. The initial period of white panic and black exultation is past –a period that saw wholesale departures of colonial civil servants who took their “lumpers” (severance pay) when their jobs were “Africanized,” or the thousands of European farmers who pulled up stakes and fled, out of some misbegotten sense of guilt and impending bloodshed.

The fact is that the whites who have remained are still working and raising their families in every one of Africa’s 29 new black states–if for no other reason than that they are needed. For all his anticolonialist bluster, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah depends heavily on the 5,000 Britons (and scores of Americans) who live in his country, engineering dams and power projects, running factories and keeping trade channels open. Despite the horrors of the past, there are now 60,000 Belgians spread throughout the Congo (which once had 90,000), and the nation’s industries, commerce and transport systems could not work without them. Last week the Congo’s President Joseph Ka-savubu went out of his way to assure “all foreigners living in the Congo” that “this is their country; they have their investments here.”

Throughout Africa, many departed whites have returned, or else have been replaced by newcomers from Europe. British railway workers, fired by the Kenya government at the demand of its labor unions, were back on their jobs a year later at much higher pay; too many trains had been going off the tracks. In the Congo’s fertile Kivu region, deserted Belgian farmlands have been snapped up by eager Italians who are now making money hand over fist. Attracted by high salaries and a booming, open economy, the French population of the Ivory Coast has doubled in the past five years.

 

Bonus: I’ll include an additional profile of Ian Smith, founder, and prime minister of Rhodesia (1965-1979). Read it in Wikipedia.

A Jewel in Two Crowns

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Photograph by Gerd Ludwig. Source: National Geographic

 

It is in Ukraine. It is, in geographical terms, not so far, but also not so distant, from Russia. It is ruled by an autonomous government supervised by Kiev’s authorities. But when it comes to bulk of its people, there is hardly any feeling about being Ukrainian though. They mostly talk in Russian, that’s fine; most of the populace in Ukraine is bilingual, back then, thanks to its centuries-long historical ties with the former, in particular during Soviet’s rule, lasting seven decades. Nevertheless, deep down their hearts, many of these residents feel more proud to be Russians, display Russian culture with more ostentatiously than with Ukrainian one, and almost everything they do in daily lives is much or less similar to their Russian counterparts.

This is Crimea, Ukraine’s uneasy peninsula.

2014 has been an entirely challenging year for Ukraine, notwithstanding its current, interim government in Kiev. A months-long political protest in Kiev that saw nearly a hundred civilians killed. Internal split between those who support Brussels and the others who favor Moscow much better (part of that reason may be attributed to Putin’s high willingness to provide financial rescue package worth 15 billion US$ to Kiev). A shaky, provisional regime now being tested with the interference of a few thousand Russian troops in Crimean peninsula, excluding numberless scores of pro-Russian militiamen now occupying most government offices in the territory. Exacerbate that matter with today’s Crimean parliamentary referendum, most of which favors ‘unification with Russia‘.

With another referendum for majority of the 2-million-strong population in Crimea scheduled in no more than 10 days, the future of this peninsula remains in deep limbo. Will it continue to be part of Ukraine? Or will it embrace back the hugs of Moscow?

 

This article, released in National Geographic Magazine‘s April 2011 edition, attempted to explore deeper what exactly happens in Crimea, the crown that, implicitly stated, dubiously ‘belongs’ to both Ukraine (in nationality) and Russia (in identity). Click the link to find out more.

 

Excerpt:

 

The Crimean Peninsula is a diamond suspended from the south coast of Ukraine by the thin chain of the Perekop Isthmus, embraced by the Black Sea, on the same latitude as the south of France. Warm, lovely, lush, with a voluptuously curved coast of sparkling cliffs, it was a jewel of the Russian Empire, the retreat of Romanov tsars, and the playground of Politburo fat cats. Officially known as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, it has its own parliament and capital, Simferopol, but takes its orders from Kiev.

Physically, politically, Crimea is Ukraine; mentally and emotionally, it identifies with Russia and provides, a journalist wrote, “a unique opportunity for Ukrainians to feel like strangers on their own territory.” Crimea speaks to the persistence of memory—how the past lingers and subverts.

In 1954 Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, signed Crimea over to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill. Galina was 14 at the time.

“Illegal,” she said, when asked about the hand­over. “There was no referendum. No announcement. It just happened.”

What was Khrushchev thinking?

“He wasn’t,” she snapped. “Khrushchev had roaches in his head.”

Crimea was a lovely present, but the box was empty. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union anyway. “My parents discussed the transfer, but we weren’t concerned,” Galina said. Moscow was still in charge. No one could have ever imagined the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when Crimea would be pulled out of the orbit of Russian rule along with an independent Ukraine.