Ilargi: I recently picked a comment out of the TAE comments section and turned it into an article , because it struck me as something more people should read than just those that read that section (everyone should, of course, but some are slow to catch on…). That article was our friend Skip's Cuckoo in the Coal Mine. In a somewhat Escherian chain of events, there was another comment to that article that caught my eye just like Skip's had done.
So I asked the guy who wrote it if I could turn his piece into an article as well. And asked him for pictures, which in my view could improve his tale even more. From growing up in Zimbabwe, passing through Zambia, moving to Greece to witness that crisis, and ending up – for now – in Montana, looking for some normalcy; it's not exactly an everyday life story.
He wrote back to say that was fine on all counts, and moreover he'd be proud if I did, since he's a big TAE fan. So there goes. To get a good flow going in this, I’ll start out with his, Alexander Aston's, response by email to my question if I could run his piece. Alexander points to a Spiegel article that I’ll include a few lines from. After that mail, the original comment. It’ll all make sense in the end.
Firstly I just wanted to say thank you, to all at The Automatic Earth. It is far and away my favorite singular place for information and commentary on the web. As for the veracity of my story, I assure you that everything is true to the best of my knowledge, though I do not have much in the way of documentation. There is an article from 2004 in Der Spiegel that talks about my father a bit after he moved to Zambia to start farming again.
As white farmers leave Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa in droves, they are being welcomed with open arms north of the Zambezi River, in Zambia. Many who have moved here to start a new life have managed to achieve record-breaking harvests in their adopted country.
Banana harvest at the Aston farm near Livingstone, Zambia Photo: Alexander Aston
Business is booming for Chris Aston. He's already planted 100 acres in Virginia tobacco and another 320 acres in wheat. He also grows hot chili peppers for US spice conglomerate Tabasco. Even during the dry season, when the unforgiving Zambian sun scorches the earth, wreaking havoc on other farmers' crops, Aston's green wheat fields sway in the breeze.
He gets his water from the nearby, bluish-green Zambezi River, which flows tranquilly past his land before crashing down Victoria Falls about 12 miles downstream.
Because Aston emigrated to Zambia only two years ago, he isn't exactly a made man yet, but he's well on his way to striking it rich. His farm already boasts 200 employees.
The world he left behind is now virtually at his doorstep, a mere 500 feet across the Zambezi River, in Zimbabwe. It was where he spent his entire childhood, where he married and fathered children, where he became a tobacco farmer — a country that was still called Rhodesia when Aston was born. But now he has vowed never to return to his former home, because it was in Zimbabwe where he lost everything.
Okavango Delta rivermen, Zambia
The Zimbabwean government seized and expropriated Aston's farm without paying him a single Zimbabwe dollar in compensation. Most of his friends left the country, some were arrested and beaten, and others were even lynched by agitated mobs. The upshot of these state-sanctioned policies has been widespread hunger in Zimbabwe.
The country has been transformed into a wasteland by its racist, socialist leader Robert Mugabe, who proudly sports a Hitler mustache, holds sham elections and censors the press. Mugabe brags of having "an academic degree in violence" and of being the "Hitler of our times." His country has become a nightmare, even by Africa standards. In light of what's happened in Zimbabwe, Aston is relieved that he managed to get out in time. "They treated us like the children of Satan over there," he says.
Like Aston, many white Africans find themselves on the move once again, and tensions are no longer confined to Zimbabwe. In Namibia, racist agitators have been stirring up hatred against white farmers among black farm workers, while "Blankes" in South Africa are also beginning to face increasing violence. More than 1,500 white farmers have been murdered in South Africa since the end of apartheid.
Behind the lines view of the ebb and flow of protesting in Syntagma square, Athens, June 29 2011. Like a tennis match, the protestors would lob into a space screaming, carrying sticks and stones. A few seconds later the tear gas would fire and in would rush police and mill about. Rinse and repeat. Photo: Alexander Aston
Alexander Aston: I also have a number of photos I took during the large austerity riots in Athens at the beginning of last July, as well as images from a few projects that were going on in Greece that I felt really showed an alternative. As you can gather from my post I have been dealing with these issues in one way or another for a long time. My desires are simple, I want a relatively safe life, in a beautiful place with people I love without fear of extreme deprivation or violence.
The only solution I have ever been able to come up with that seems feasible is to pay attention to what works (by the way, there is a large group here working hard to start a Montana State Bank modeled on the North Dakotans and it is starting to gain traction), try and develop models as organically as possible and hope like hell that others will adapt. My dream, and I believe it is a rational possibility if not assured, is that as the ecology of our situation increases to exert pressure on us, that there will be a rapid emergent adaptation of behaviours effecting an "ecocultural" revolution in our socio-economic structures.
Peaceful Parko Navarinou in the anarchist district of Exarchia while there’s fighting in the streets in nearby Syntagma , Athens, June 29 2011 Photo: Alexander Aston
Anyway I would be honoured if you wanted to run my story at TAE, as I said I respect the site immensely. I am not sure what more I would add… That we need to develop utterly new moral, ethical and social philosophies that recognize human consciousness as embedded in a process of evolutionary ecology which is in turn embedded in a thermodynamic process. That unless our systems, both intellectual and material, recognize and reflect those truths they will be doomed to failure.
Yet even more simply than that, we need to love, celebrate and respect with all our being the vast and beautiful mystery that we are caught up in (If you have not seen the film Agora I believe it is one of the great pieces of art in our times and one I showed all my students). Well I have gone on quite a bit and I will leave off only by saying that we cannot claim authority over the future but only the responsibility to participate in its creation.
Ilargi: Okay, that sets the tone for Alexander's remarkable story. It's where you want to ask: you think you had it hard, or you think you've seen things in the world? Well, try this one on for size. Here's someone who's seen a deep deep crisis play out around the world he lived in as a child, and then moved on.
Alexander Aston and his dad, near Karoi, Zimbabwe, circa 1985
Alexander Aston: I grew up in an Irish farming family in Zimbabwe Africa. When I was 16 the country's economy began to collapse in earnest when the government took over the farms. Friends (black and white) were beaten and killed, homes were destroyed. On my uncles farm 400 fully grown citrus trees were cut down by the "war vets" because he refused to hand over the years tobacco crop to them.
Over the course of a few months the main support structures of the economy were essentially wiped out. There was 30% unemployment virtually overnight and that was just getting started, it was still years before it got really bad. Since the beginning of the millenium my home has suffered a 7 septillion percent inflation rate, 95% unemployment, and a drop in life expectancy from 65 to 32. The infrastructure and resources necessary to support communities were either wiped out or monopolized by elites, solidifying their hegemony over the country.
While half the population requires food aid to survive you can see multi million dollar (U.S.) homes going up around Harare in gated communities with expensive shopping centers peddling fine imported foods and goods. Zimbabwe has been sold off for pennies on the dollar, but when you concentrate that into a small elite it is still a massive amount of wealth for individuals.
What was once a truly beautiful place, full of vibrant people, has been horribly disfigured by the corruption, greed, nepotism and outright psychopathy of the Zanu-PF. In essence Zimbabwe is a corpse of a country kept on life support by the Chinese now as they haul off any raw materials of value.
Needless to say something like this has a huge impact on the psyche of a teenager. It pretty much wiped out any normalcy bias about what to expect from our political or economic systems. It also seeded a deep philosophical and practical anarchism within me.
I graduated from University in Athens, Greece with a degree in philosophy in 2006. I wrote my thesis on the philosophy of history with the central argument that Industrial Civilization would collapse and either be replaced by a new emergent socio-economic revolution an order of magnitude higher than industrialization and agriculture combined, or we would go back to the stone age or extinct.
My philosophy department dismissed me as a futurist and the economists dismissed me as a philosopher (A little vindication: I have since had a few individuals contact me and apologize for dismissing me and in review they have found my premises and argumentation sound even if they still do not necessarily agree with my conclusions).
Upon leaving university I travelled around the world, back to Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and North America. For a few years I travelled to various communities to see how they functioned, permaculture farms, indigenous peoples, artist collectives, anarcho comunes. I was trying to assemble real world knowledge of what actually worked.
If there is one thing that should be obvious to us it is that we must create the infrastructure and institutions at the ground level that will provide the stability and resources for communities and individuals to realign their behaviour around as the old systems increasingly breakdown.
In 2008 I moved to Denver to start a collective with one of my best mates from University ( www.kindacollective.org ). We started small, we opened a little space and the first activity we ran was a documentary and discussion evening and branched out from there. We did things like help to run volunteer art classes in a low income elementary school that had had its funding cut.
Kinda Collective Space 2008
Currently we have a large permaculture garden with free internet access and a building we can teach hay bail construction with. We now have 150 students from the local elementary school that run classes in the garden. Last year we organized a large block party in Denvers Art District on Santa Fe street called Here is How. The event was based on collaborative practice and educational outreach. We invited a host of community groups, organizations and local businesses to the event.
Their only obligations were to handle the nature of their presence at the street party i.e. info booth, entertainment, crafts etc. plus they provided at least 200 printouts of a How-to page that we gave them the template for. This could be things like "Here is how to Build a Garden, DJ a party, Protect Local Pollinators or Fold an Origami Crane".
Kinda Collective Community Garden 2009
The collective took care of logistics, outreach and media. At the actual block party we had a book binding table where people brought all their "Here is How" pages they had collected and we showed them how to bind their own books so they could create their own community DIY manual to take home. Ultimately something like Here is How is very small, but the idea is that it helps to foster a culture of collaboration and mutual aid.
In 2011 I was asked to teach a University class in Greece to American students. We discussed the philosophy of history as Egyptians knelt in prayer before water cannons and as the fires set in the Ministry of Finance in Athens flickered light across the marble of the Acropolis. It was the perfect classroom and it allowed us to have extensive dialogue about the role of history in our lives and our responsibility in that context.
The point for me was never to tell my student that things were “fcuked”, but to provide the framework and information to form their own perspectives and ideas on what they were learning and to form a dialogue about the issues. For me the key goal is to plant the seeds, whether they are intellectual or infrastructural and recognize that the unfolding of history (or whatever term you like for the fast complexity of events we are immersed in.) will do the fertilizing.
I have since moved to Bozeman Montana (where my other best mate from University lives) having been offered a graduate teaching position which will pay for me to work on another degree (a little insulation). My small but close community here is working hard to develop what we can to provide alternatives. We are putting on Here is How Bozeman this summer and at the beginning of August we are opening a small community space. It is an extremely flexible, if not large, space that we can reorganize for a number of uses.
We will have a small merchandise section with books and goods made by local artists and craftworkers to try and supplement some of the cost of running the space. Beyond that it will mostly be composed of a library with internet access and sitting area. We will be running free tutoring and presentation/discussions out of it, small events such as movie showings, as well as providing free meeting space for anyone that wants to use it. We also have a good friend who works in early childhood development who is interested in setting up a small enrichment program for families.
We are also located a block over from the bar scene near the campus. Last year there was a string of serial rapes and we are speaking with some of the local advocacy groups and developing a plan to keep the space open and staffed Friday and Saturday nights until an hour after the bars close so that if there is anyone feeling uncomfortable or threatened by a situation can come and use the space as a safe haven and have the option of being walked home at the end of the evening. From there we will expand in whatever ways we can.
Now I am not writing all this to toot my own horn so to speak, the gains of my communities have been modest but tangible. What is of key importance is to me is surmounting the isolation that we feel when we are confronted with the apathy, ignorance and aggression of those unwilling to look at the issues that confront us with real intellectual honesty.
For years I was ridiculed and dismissed by family, friends, professors and co-workers. I learned a very careful, humble and diplomatic pedagogy for eliciting others to think on their own terms and come to their own conclusion while always being honest (but not aggressive) about my own views. In the consistency of my argumentation I have won over many once intractable individuals closer to my way of viewing what is happening. Again this is more about the fertility of history than any specific capacity of mine.
I have remained consistent and articulate, but intellectually honest when I have been wrong, for many years now. When 2008 rolled around and then the European crisis started to properly kick off suddenly my arguments were not so outlandish and I was increasingly validated by events. Above all we must have compassion for the cultural and historical perspectives in which our fellow humans are embedded.
The relationships of industrialization have so deeply purveyed our cultures and psyches. Indeed it is as unimaginable for many of us to perceive the world without our industrial economies and nation states at the nexus as it must have been for medieval peasants to contemplate a world without the Church of Rome.
However I think it is also important to recognize that a little shock (if given with humour and kindness) can go a long way to breaking down ingrained dialogues. For example a person asked me the other day what it was like in Greece this past year and I responded, “You know the scene in Titanic when the band is playing and all the people are running around screaming and throwing deck chairs over the side…” They laughed but it expressed the true intensity of the situation and subverted a lot of the propaganda fairly quickly.
Syntagma square, Athens, June 29 2011 Photo: Alexander Aston
We then had a fairly extensive and honest discussion about the real implications of what is happening. The other thing that I would say is that we need to stand our ground, again with humility and compassion but conviction none the less. I have a few years of food stored up, and the first thing that I will do when distribution breaks down is to start providing it to the community. I will readily admit this to anyone, and if they act like I am out of my mind I will humbly state that I hope I am wrong and that nothing would make me happier, but I then gently inform them that they never have experienced anything like what I am describing and I have seen it twice now.
The marble steps of the Grand Britagne chopped up for ammo, Athens, June 29 2011 Photo: Alexander Aston
It is not some misanthropic preoccupation but a visceral awareness of the implications of what I describe. This is not the providence of fiction but actual historical phenomenon. It is easy to dismiss something you have not experienced but that is a position of unexamined assumption and bias that must be exposed for what it is. It is not about making someone agree with you but to at least intellectually recognize the validity of the claim and to earn respect for your position. This again is at least a seed. I often summarize my goals as radical intention coupled with diplomatic action.
I will leave off with a short story. After the war that liberated Zimbabwe from Rhodesia in 1980 my parents and a friend renovated a Land Rover in order to go Safari through central Africa. They cut off the roof over the front seats, welded down the back cover and installed a stereo system. However, it being post independence Zim they could not find any speakers so they installed three headphone jacks and proceeded to cruise through the bush open air with their headphones on.
Everything was brilliant until they got to the border checkpoint with Malawi. This was Africa in the 80’s, the Afrikaaner government in South Africa was doing everything it could to hold onto power and destabilize Black Africa, so needless to say there was a lot of suspicion and fear. The checkpoint was your typical third world military post. Dusty concrete, topped with concertina wire, the windows broken in the guardhouse and a large picture Hasting Banda glaring down from the wall.
The Guards rushed out screaming in a language my parents did not understand, waving and pointing their A.K.’s they forced them out of the vehicle. Shouting the guards alternated from shoving the A.K.’s into their chests and pointing them at the Land Rover. It was extremely tense and terrifying and then my mother realized they were pointing at the headphones and it occurred to her that the guards were thinking they were South African Spies.
Very gently my mother took the headphones and placed them over the head guards ears. They were playing Bob Marley. The look of anger suspicion melted away, replaced by a massive grin as he started to bob his head and move his body. The guards proceeded to pass around the headphones smiling and laughing. They invited my parents for tea and then let them continue on their way.
Music alone bridged not only the divide of language but also the massive divide of black and white Africa. Courage and dignity demands that we must relentlessly seek the common ground of our humanity, from there I believe that anything is possible.
Top: Nikkis and Metropoleos just next to syntagma and the ministry of finance Photo: Alexander Aston