Coming out of the Serena Hotel in Nairobi, I got stopped by two police officers for driving the wrong way on a one way street.
The guy threatened that I would have to go to the police station and pay 20,000 Sch ($230). The following day I would have to go to court, where I would have to pay another 50,000 Sch ($600) or go to jail.
“It’s for your safety, I am trying to protect you.”
I note that everyone drives the wrong way down this road. “No, no one ever drives that way.” Of course, someone does just as he says that and the other guy pulls his over.
He tells me to get in my car, where he has me pull all of the money out of my pockets. I have 8800 Sch ($100). “Add more.” I tell him that it is impossible for me to add more since that’s all the money in my pocket.
I’m getting slightly irate at this point and finally his partner comes along and says that he’s going to take the other guy in.
“Just get 10,000 from him and let’s take the other guy in instead.”
I protest that I only have 8800 and bark at him to just take it at let me go.
Finally, the guy lets me off and even tries to give me directions home.
I was just reading this column in a special section of the NYT from Maano Ramutsindela, geographer from the University of Cape Town.
The partitioning of Africa by European empires has had devastating social, economic, political and psychological impacts, and millions of lives have been lost in post-independence Africa defending colonial borders. We are overdue for an African renaissance, completing the decolonization – which remains unfinished business until boundaries are changed.
His piece is mostly about the issue of parks, but the following came to mind.
1. Perhaps the author does not realize that millions of European lives have also been lost over the issue of borders. Historically, countries in Europe also haven’t fully represented linguistic groups (what is a language anyway?).
2. While from afar it may seem self evident to create states based on language, I’m wondering how that plays out in a country like Kenya, where there are more than 40 languages spoken and where, since often ethnic groups represent occupational groups, linguistic regions overlap. The distinctions between languages and cultures are often artificial anyway. Though the Maasai and the Samburu speak mutually intelligible languages and share almost identical cultural practices, they are bitter enemies and have been at war with one another for centuries.
3. Perhaps we might hope that African states worry more about how to keep themselves together and how to mend their internal divisions, rather than arbitrarily create more. It’s bad enough that the Kenyan government is weak and unresponsive to the needs of its citizenry, but the local governments haven’t shown themselves to be much more effective.
4. Perhaps, instead of dividing Africa even further, we might hope that African states learn to trade amongst one another. One of the main impediments to development is that fact that most African countries don’t trade with one another. There is no domestic trade economy. Could one imagine a world where European countries like Switzerland and Germany only traded with China and not each other? Cause that’s what’s happening in Africa.
5. Worse yet, it assumes that there is such a thing as a “natural” political unit. There is no such thing. All countries are artificially and have been created through mostly undemocratic means.
Worrying about colonial borders is a low hanging side show. While the colonial borders certainly impacted the ways in which modern Africa formed, in the end focusing on the issue is a convenient way of not having to dig more deeply into the complexity of present day facts. Present day Kenya is not a basket case simply because of misplaced borders. I think we should give Kenyans much more credit. These narratives often do to little to take African countries themselves to task for their own failings.