zondag, december 06, 2009

A Napoleonic enthusiast in Kenya

Life and work of author and diplomat André Dellevoet

by Jan Flamend

Passions can truly be awkwardly distributed. Some people have none and others have more than two, which may also be miles apart.
A Dutchman in his forties, André Dellevoet, is such a rarity, who lets his life be guided by two seemingly totally irreconcilable passions; development cooperation in Africa and Napoleonic history.

It is difficult to uncover how he got there. His background doesn’t really provide an answer; he was born in 1963 in the village of Schijndel, province North-Brabant, where his family already lived for generations. His father was a civil servant in Eindhoven and his mother a textiles salesperson. Also his study background; law in Maastricht and political sciences in Leiden, doesn’t point in that direction. But what does? We talked to the man and read his recent book about “the Dutch-Belgian Cavalry at Waterloo”.

Development cooperation

Dellevoet: “An old Hindu once told me that in one or several of my previous lives I must have taken part in the Napoleonic wars as well as spent part of my life in Africa. I am not that religious, so you may tell me! Which is certain, is that both interests are strongly present in me.
The interest in development cooperation was awakened at secondary school in Schijndel, where a number of progressive teachers made me aware of poverty issues. This was reinforced by my adventurous character and interest in the outside world. At the age of 17, I left for a year to the United States as exchange student and after that the world became my playground. Schijndel had truly become too small and I travelled ever further from home. In the newspapers I only read foreign news and on TV I watched all the foreign news shows of Dutch, Flemish and German channels. In my military service time, I was almost sent to Lebanon for the peacekeeping force there, but when a number of young men died because of mines, I thought it was better to be stationed in German to "scare off" the Soviets.
In my university studies I chose consistently all international subjects that I could register for. In those days I travelled for the first time to developing countries like Egypt, Thailand and Indonesia. In the terribly smelly slums of Jakarta I swore a solemn oath that I would dedicate my professional and personal life to the eradication of poverty. I intend to keep my word.
After that, the choice for a diplomatic career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was a logical step. It gave me the opportunity to indulge myself in both the mysterious world of international diplomacy and development cooperation. Apart from a few years intra European cooperation, I have always been involved in development cooperation. My passion for Africa erupted from the first moment I set foot on the ground in Zambia, my first posting abroad. I remember well how I inhaled the soft, blossom air and thought: I am home!”

Napoleonic history

“The interest in Napoleonic history already appeared at a very early age. As a boy of 5 I already drew Napoleonic soldiers while my aunts above were chatting intensively about incomprehensible affairs. One of those aunts has kept a few drawings from that time and it is striking to see how detailed they are. I also remember well how fascinated I was in front of the television in the beginning of the 1970's when they showed the BBC series of Tolstoy's “war and Peace”. After that, it only became worse. I began collecting Napoleonic soldiers and painted them, joined a re/enactment group called the Napoleonic Cavalry Association (NCV) and began doing historical research that resulted in a 10 year study about the role of the Dutch/Belgian cavalry at the battle of Waterloo”.

The Dutch/Belgian cavalry

The book “the Dutch Belgian cavalry at Waterloo” was published last year and can be called extraordinary in many ways.
It is written by a Dutchman in English, published by a Belgian publishing house called `the cavalry` with uniform illustrations from a German artist. These nations also made up the allied army that stopped Napoleon at Waterloo. The book is richly illustrated, including some drawings by the author himself. The book and the maps of the battlefields are partly designed by the author and indicate in detail the movements of the Dutch-Belgian cavalry, as if he was there himself. In a way, this is true. The author has, as a Napoleonic horseman in countless reenacted battles with the NCV, experienced in body and spirit what it meant in those days to go into battle on horseback and broke several bones along the way.
No author has captured so completely or delved so deep into the subject of the Dutch-Belgian cavalry as Andre Dellevoet. To this end, he went to the archives in London, Paris, Brussels and The Hague and numerous provincial archives where he spent man leave days in the files. As a hint to his other passion, Dellevoet also found a few African artists who provided some illustrations for his book. In itself this was already remarkable, since everything had to be explained to them about horses, uniforms and equipment. Especially the drawings of the Ugandan artist Arnold Birungi fit very nicely in the book.


Now that this life´s work has been concluded, Dellevoet has decided to bring his Napoleonic passion back to manageable proportions. Although… his next plan is to exhibit a grand diorama of the battle in the Brussels army museum with 200.000 miniature soldiers in scale 1/72 which will be opened for the public in 2015 at the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Dellevoet has a few interesting thoughts about the historical relevance of Waterloo: "The battle of Waterloo and the way in which that battle went into history, says much about today's Europe. What's striking is the actual clash between the stubborn European tribal culture with different layers of parochialism, nationalism and chauvinism and the supranational, technocratic, economic and political process of European integration. In the Napoleonic era things were not different. The French empire was a military/political experiment for a single supranational, continental Europe under the lead of one dominating power: France. Almost all nations and established orders in the European countries, empires, kingdoms, duchies, principalities and counties resisted and had to be subdued by force. The history of Waterloo is also saturated with chauvinism and national pride. Very few authors have been insensitive to this temptation and have been able to see the battle from a purely historical perspective and do justice to all participating armies.

It is about time that we recognize and respect this historical continuity. Europe is in the first place a collection of peoples, cultures, societies and communities with a strong own identity, that interacted in many different ways with each other since as far back as one cares to look and still do; culturally, scientifically, economically, politically and militarily. This has led to endless conflict and competition in which the yearning for own identity, independence and self/determination stood high, but also to enormous progress in all fields, see Paul Kennedy's “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, precisely because of this competition and interaction. Actually, it is the state that is a relatively new invention, which in essence is at odds with all these hybrid communities. In the Napoleonic era they had no visa and passports and many borders were not drawn up yet. The nation/state had almost nowhere taken solid shape. All armies had recruits from all countries. And this was only 200 years ago! I think that the future of the European integration in the short term shouldn´t lie in statist, bureaucratic and political structures, but in the melting together of cultures and communities. This is already happening in the European private sector, university cooperation and exchange programs, European tourism, media, sports, you name it. This process must be actively stimulated. When it becomes very normal to feel and think European and speak at last one Germanic or Latin language, we can start working on governance structures that go along with this development. Not the other way around".

Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund

As far as development cooperation is concerned, he has also chosen a different direction. Disillusioned by the lack of effectiveness of development cooperation, he resigned in 2008 from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the moment, he is the executive manager of the "Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund" in Nairobi, Kenya, which stimulates companies to start risky and innovative investments in Africa's rural areas. Besides that, he is building a training centre for good governance and leadership in Jinja, Uganda, at the source of the Nile. In a few years he hopes to settle there with his Ivorian wife, Gina Attemene.
In his own words: "My departure from foreign affairs was a typical case of 'better turning around half way than erring the whole way'. The criticism against the ineffectiveness and even counterproductive effects of development cooperation by authors like William Easterly in “the white mans´burden” and recently Dambisa Moyo in “Dead Aid” cannot be ignored. They are right. After 60 years, development cooperation has achieved little. It is about time that the rudder is turned into a drastically different direction. I just no longer wanted to be part of a field of work that simply doesn't matter. The development of Africa will happen, I am convinced of that, but sooner without than thanks to development cooperation. A few years ago I advocated In the Dutch magazine "Socialism and Democracy" for an explicit political strategy in which western countries support changes in developing countries in the direction of good governance by indigenous 'change agents' such as entrepreneurs and what is often called 'the global middle class'. When I noticed that the minds within the aid industry were not ready for such a policy change (the billions have to be spent after all), I decided that I had to shape this change myself via a private initiative on the spot; that's why I chose to work with the private sector now and will later set up the leadership centre in Uganda".

Order "The Dutch-Belgian Cavalry at Waterloo" by André Dellevoet here.

Photographs: © Bart Ramakers


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