I had a few minutes today to read the new Economist, which turned into more than a few minutes when I noticed an excellent feature on Africa’s economic rise. These features are not rare for the Economist, however. Reporting on Africa in that “newspaper” (as they refer to the themselves) is generally quite good. Perhaps it has something to do with being a magazine published in a former colonial power.
The Economist doesn’t make the names of the reporters easily known. The journalist in question, however, embarked on a whirlwind tour of the best of Africa, starting in South Africa, worming his way up through Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, over North Africa, then down through Ghana and West Africa.
As a testament to Africa’s development, he notes:
The journey covered some 15,800 miles (25,400km) on rivers, railways and roads, almost all of them paved and open for business. Not once was your correspondent asked for a bribe along the way, though a few drivers may have given small gratuities to policemen. The trip took 112 days, and on all but nine of them e-mail by smartphone was available. It was rarely dangerous or difficult. Borders were easily crossed and visas could be had for a few dollars on the spot or within a day in the nearest capital. By contrast, in 2001, when Paul Theroux researched his epic travel book, “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town”, he was shot at, forced into detours and subjected to endless discomforts.
Which is totally in line with my own experiences, though he downplays the hazards of highway travel presented by the numerous poorly conditioned fourth hand vehicles all over the roads (road accidents may be killing more people than HIV in 2013). We can forgive at least that, I guess.
Of interest was this, however:
On a journey of nearly 600 miles across the country from Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital, to the Zambian border, the phone signal never falters, and every town has mobile broadband internet. Had there been a hotel in Tunduma, the border village, it could have been booked online. But the only place available is a sticky room with a broken television, welded into a metal case to thwart thieves.
I’ve done that drive, and been to Tunduma. If he would have bothered to write, I could have recommended a wonderful hotel nearby (complete with surreal cement safari sculptures) that certainly can be booked on line. The TV’s work and even have CNN and Bloomberg News.
We got into an interesting discussion with our driver. Joseph is a great guy and, most salient on African roads, a great driver. He asked me if I was a Christian. I told him flat out that I didn’t believe in anything. I usually try to hold back, but maybe I was too tired to care.
He asked why, and I told him: The Abrahamic God is a despot. He let’s children die. He punishes his faithful followers with poverty and suffering and astonishingly still demands tribute. Paradoxically, the people that don’t believe in Him live relatively bountiful lives. I told him that I respect and do not think badly of people who choose to believe, but I, personally, have serious problems with religion. We can coexist peacefully.
Joseph struggled to come up with some reason why, pointing out that it is the spiritual failings of the children’s parents that cause infant death. We discussed the subject further, and it expanded into a political discussion of the nature of foreign aid and development.
“Africa is behind because our ancestors weren’t faithful. The white people came to give us the message of Christ, but it was too late. It will take us 100 years to develop.”
Of course, I jokingly replied that the white man came because he want to enslave Africans to act as farming tools and steal African gold.
This brought up some important issues. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs to assume that one’s continent is in disarray because people 300 years ago had made the mistake of practicing indigenous religions (as opposed to a foreign import). It’s worse that white people, in their exploitative glory, are seen as saviors and not the raw opportunists they were (are).
It’s even worse to think that common Africans are stuck in a state of self-loathing simply for not being born European. Western contributions to the world cannot be denied, but it’s fantasy to believe that the world couldn’t live without us. I don’t think that Joseph is particularly set in his views and was likely merely making enjoyable conversation, but the statement was revealing.
It is now almost cliche to talk of the evils of aid and the creation of the problems of dependence. If foreign governments are so motivated, they can simply stop sending money. There are other ways of helping Africa’s economies to grow (ending US/European farm subsidies is one). An issue of identity, however, is a much more difficult problem to solve. If one of the African economies joins the top ranks of the world, as I think one will in the next 50 years (it might be even Kenya), we may, perhaps, see significant change.