Country Facts #10:Turkmenistan to Zimbabwe

This week: Sand monkeys, hyperinflation, cannibalism, lightning, tunnel networks, and the worshipping of the Duke of Edinburgh.


Turkmenistan – If it weren’t for North Korea and its headline grabbing shenanigans, it would surely be Turkmenistan that was world famous for its bizarre cult of personality regime. Saparmurat Niyazov, self-proclaimed President for Life, took power when the country became independent in 1991 and proceeded to- amongst all too many other things- rename the month of January after himself, designate a book he’d written a holy text, and ban dogs from the capital city. READ MORE

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Just one of the gold statues of Saparmurat Niyazov erected in the Turkmen capital AshgabatNog zo’n mooi standbeeld / Martijn Munneke / CC BY 2.0

Tuvalu – Tiny Tuvalu, a Pacific island country so minute it has a population of less than 11,000 and a road network totalling just 8km, has the world’s smallest GDP, around $37 million. Yet, by an extraordinary quirk of fate, Tuvalu’s national domain name is the hugely popular “.tv”, and the government has capitalised on its good fortune by selling its rights to the name to an American media group. It receives annual royalties of around $2 million, funding around a tenth of government expenditure! READ MORE

Uganda – Anyone who’s seen the film The Last King of Scotland will be familiar with Uganda’s erstwhile dictator Idi Amin. A mix of autocrat and buffoon, Amin granted himself the rather grandiose title: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”. His critics had a simpler moniker: “the Butcher of Uganda”. After eight years of tyranny he was deposed and exiled in 1979. READ MORE

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Amin taking a break from his efforts to ruin the countryIdi Amin / User:RV 1864 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ukraine – The name Ukraine roughly translates as “borderland” in some Slavic languages, and gradually came to be associated with the modern day country at the frontiers of the Russian Empire. It is for this reason that the country is often erroneously referred to as “the Ukraine”. READ MORE

United Arab Emirates – The perils of not double checking information sourced on Wikipedia are perfectly illustrated by the Asian Football Confederation’s blunder in 2012. In the lead up to a youth tournament, the AFC managed to insult the United Arab Emirates team by referring to them as the “Sand Monkeys” on their website, having been informed incorrectly by Wikipedia that it was their official nickname. Threats of legal action and accusations of racism swiftly followed, and the AFC was forced to apologise. READ MORE

United Kingdom – In its long history, the UK has invaded all but 22 of the world’s countries, according to historian Stuart Laycock. Only a handful of nations, many of which are mere microstates like the Vatican City and Liechtenstein, have escaped the wrath of the British. The list includes many oft forgotten tales, such as Britain’s invasion and occupation of neutral Iceland during World War II. (Incidentally, since the list was compiled British forces were deployed in a non-combat role in Mali, arguably adding another country to the tally!) READ MORE

United States – It may be the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country, but the United States is living beyond its means, and carries an eye watering level of debt. As of early December 2016, the US national debt is approaching a staggering $20 trillion, a figure which rises by $2 billion every single day. The situation actually seems to be getting worse in recent years: the two most recent presidents, George Bush and Barack Obama, have overseen the largest federal budget deficits and thus allowed the debt to grow even more rapidly than before. READ MORE And you can even view the real time debt figures HERE

Uruguay – The aftermath of the infamous 1972 Andes plane crash may well be the most powerful story of survival in human history. A plane flying a Uruguayan rugby team to Chile crashed 3,600m up in the Argentinian Andes, killing 18 of the 45 people on board. The survivors were forced to spend more than two months in the frozen mountains, and once their meagre food supplies had ran out they were forced to cannibalise the bodies of their former teammates and family members to survive. Eventually, two of the Uruguayans managed to trek to safety, where they were able to organise a rescue for the other 14 survivors. READ MORE

Uzbekistan – Along with tiny Liechtenstein, Uzbekistan is one of the world’s only two doubly landlocked countries- meaning, landlocked countries completely surrounded by other landlocked countries. Located at the heart of the Central Asian plains, the Uzbek capital Tashkent is some 1,800km north of the nearest ocean, the Arabian Sea. READ MORE

Vanuatu – The Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, is worshipped as a God by a strange cult on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. The Yaohnanen tribe long held beliefs that a descendant of the island’s mountain spirits would depart for a distant land, marry a powerful woman, and eventually return. When the Duke made a state visit to Vanuatu with the Queen in 1974, they naturally assumed the messiah was back. READ MORE

Vatican City – The home of Catholicism, and a country so small it doesn’t have any prisons, the Vatican City is also the world’s crime capital- on a technicality. Because of the huge numbers of tourists it attracts, pick-pocketing is rife in the Vatican leading to around 600 arrests a year- almost one arrest per head of population in the world’s smallest state. The tourists also create another curious statistical anomaly: the Vatican has by far the world’s highest ratio of annual tourists to locals, 6506 to one. READ MORE

Venezuela – The mouth of the Catatumbo River in Venezuela is officially the most lightning hit place on the planet. Fuelled by cold Andean air flowing down from the nearby mountains into the tropics, lightning storms are almost a nightly occurrence in the area, with around 250 strikes per sq. km every year. READ MORE

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The nightly light show in northern VenezuelaCatatumbo Lightning / Fernando Flores / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Vietnam – One of the keys to the success of the Vietcong against the might of the US army during the Vietnam was their creation of a vast network of tunnels dug beneath the jungle floor. The tunnels criss-crossed the country and housed thousands of Vietcong fighters, who used them to spring surprise attacks before quickly disappearing back underground. Life inside the tunnels was grim, though, with little space to move, sweltering humidity and masses of insects lining the walls. READ MORE

Yemen – The Arabian peninsula nation of Yemen is currently mired in a brutal civil war, regularly subject to airstrikes by its neighbours, and is ravaged by political instability, corruption, poverty and terrorism. And that’s just the start of its problems. Most alarmingly of all, as a result of its arid location, rapid depletion of its reserves of groundwater, and infrastructure damage accumulated during the war, Yemen is fast running out of water. The country’s water table is falling by 2m a year, and with a population that is projected to double by 2050 and rainfall decreasing year on year due to climate change, Yemen is facing a rather bleak future. READ MORE

Zambia – Forget fiscal stimuli, tax cuts or bail outs: Zambia’s response to economic meltdown in 2015 was to seek divine intervention. With the currency in freefall and government revenues plummeting, President Edgar Lungu  encouraged Zambians to use October 18th as a day to pray for recovery. Needless to say, the skyward pleas fell on deaf ears, and the Zambian economy is performing even worse in 2016. READ MORE

Zimbabwe – So bad was Zimbabwean hyperinflation in the early years of the 21st Century that at the height of the crisis in 2008, the official rate of inflation was at 231,000,000 % (though the genuine rate was likely to have been closer to one billion). The government even released a 100,000,000,000,000 (that is, 100 trillion) Zimbabwean dollar banknote that had an official value of around $300, but was in reality virtually useless. The currency finally collapsed in 2009 and has not been replaced ever since. READ MORE


And that, dear readers, is that. At least until Scotland votes for independence…

If you have anything to add to any of these entries, you can offer a better one, or you just want someone to talk to, please leave a comment!

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