Ignorance of Africa is surprisingly widespread. About five years ago, an economist at a leading international organisation was overheard at a cocktail party saying that Africans tended to struggle in Western economies û because they were too accustomed to easy living in Africa!
Kapuscinski writes: ôThe problem of Africa is the dissonance between the environment and the human being, between the immensity of the African space (more than 30 million square kilometres) and the defenceless, barefoot, wretched man who inhabits it."
It's also a space where child soldiers shoot each other at point blank range with a new generation of lightweight, plastic weapons, and where marauding gangs of young men from one country ostensibly fight other gangs of marauding young men from other countries. In practice, both groups are actually robbing and killing their own countryÆs unarmed population, Kapuscinski points out. Women work themselves to the bone while the men lounge around, and women are the first victims of violence. ôWe are in a world where misery condemns some to death and transforms others into monsters. There is no one else.ö
Unlike the English-language travel writing that is produced by preppy kids on their year out between school and university, KapuscinskiÆs account is free of irony, or even much humour. His gaze is fixed on the other-worldly atrocities that he encounters on his travels. He doesnÆt find much to laugh about.
His account of an Africa that is so horribly poor and desolate leads to the conclusion that Chinese investment can only be a boon û whatever the geo-political concerns relating to the control of resources.
First, he cites a number of instances where Western influence has aggravated the situation in post-colonial Africa. In the Sudan, the British created a country deliberately including Black Africans and Arabs û two groups which have loathed each other ever since Arabs started trading slaves. The logic was based on the classic imperial ædivide and ruleÆ policy. The British hoped that even after independence, they would be indispensable. They werenÆt (or perhaps they were, but local rulers didnÆt care), and the Sudan is to this day still facing daily bloodbaths. The British were also culpable in promoting second-rate and occasionally psychotic individuals such as Idi Amin in Uganda, again on the basis that local incompetence would strengthen British influence after independence.
The second instance is Rwanda. In 1959, the Belgians helped trigger a Hutu rebellion against their Tutsi masters. The reason being that the Tutsis, as the ruling class, were most committed to the struggle for independence against Belgium. By supporting the lower-caste Hutus, the Belgians believed they could turn the tables on the Tutsis. The next 50 years of mutual attempted genocide are related to that decision.
France also contributed to the debacle, when it sent paratroopers to protect the Hutu government in 1990. The logic was just as twisted as British logic in the Sudan and Uganda. President Mitterand of France sent his paratroopers to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, to scare away an invasion force from Tanzania. The invasion force was composed of Tutsi refugees intent on reclaiming their former privileges in Rwanda. But as the force came from æAnglo-phoneÆ Africa (Rwanda is French-speaking), France decided to block the invasion. In the breathing space provided by the French, the Hutus laid their plans for the extermination of the Tutsis inside Rwanda, which duly occurred in 1994.
The third instance is Liberia. If ever there was a laboratory case of nanve American meddling in foreign affairs this is it. Set up by liberated American slaves shipped over by US religious philanthropists, it quickly became a slave state. Rather like the monkeyÆs tea party at the zoo, the newly liberated slaves adopted all the accoutrements and church-going habits of their former masters û including, unfortunately, enslaving the original inhabitants of the territory they had stolen.
Kapuscinski believes the moral effect of the slave trade was huge, not least in the West. ôThe philosophy that inspired the construction of Kolyma and Auschwitz, one of obsessive contempt and hatred, vileness and brutality, was formulated and set down centuries earlier by the captains of the Martha and the Progresso, the Mary Ann and the Rainbow, as they sat in their cabins gazing out the portholes at groves of palm trees and sun-warmed beaches, waiting aboard their ships anchored off the islands of Sherbro, or Zanzibar, for the next batch of slaves to be loaded...ö In Africa, ôthe consequence was the deepest and most painfully permanent of scars: the inferiority complex...as well as the profound poisoning of interpersonal relations.ö
There is also the Cold War and its aftermath. During the Cold War, the West basically supported any dictator, however bloody, as long as he was anti-communist. In the wake of the Cold War, the West pretty much abandoned Africa û apart from the multinationals holding on to the oil and mineral concessions that had been granted by former local allies.
Aid has hardly helped. Aid worsens the situation because most of it ends up going to the brutal regimes which trigger the famines in the first place. It also encourages attacks on the women and children who get the aid.
Despite the aid that does trickle through, Kapuscinski emphasizes that it is not enough. ôA spoon, that bowl, is their entire treasure, their lifeÆs earnings, the riches with which they enter the twenty-first century.ö And itÆs this that has brought war: ôSomeone reaching for a weapon, for a machete or a machine gun, is doing so first and foremost in order to grab some food, to get something to eat. It is war over a handful of corn, a bowl of rice.ö
What are the real benefits China can bring? Firstly, its ChinaÆs very presence in a territory the West has become complacent about. Just as American foreign policy had to be more multilateral when competing with Soviet ideology in the past, one must hope that ChinaÆs increase in influence in Africa will encourage more involvement from the West. Second, there are the actual investments. Chinese oil companies have poured billions of dollars into oil refineries and infrastructure in the Sudan, for example. Some of that is bound to spill over into the local economy. Even if most of the workers on Chinese projects are Chinese, they will still consume local products and services.
But most dramatically at the poorest level, is the Chinese genius at producing very simple items at very low prices. Kapuscinski gives a brilliant account of dozens of coloured plastic bowls lined in front of a water pump û their owners resting in the shade or about some other business. In the past, water containers were massive, handmade, and valuable û so women (the men donÆt do such menial tasks) had to stay by their containers under the broiling sun, often for hours, before they got the water. Chinese manufacturing influence is gradually extending to white goods, motorbikes and electronics. Cheap bicycles have a colossal influence in villages living barely above starvation levels û as do communally owned mobile phones. For the West, feasting on high margins for super-sophisticated or super-hyped products, Africa is a profoundly unattractive market, and has thus been completely ignored (with the notable exception of the arms industry).
Will this be enough? Kapuscinski does not neglect the spiritual state of Africans. He describes ancestor worship û for example, royal families building new palaces for each generation while allowing the old palaces to be taken over by ghosts û who are perceived as active in the real world, and require real resources to be placated. ôThe exchange (of initial greetings) lasts a long time because parties are trying to determine whether something (in their respective family trees) unites them or divides them...their personal rapport, their mutual sympathy or antipathy have no meaning; their relationship depends solely on the current state of affairs of their two clans...the human being, the singular distinct person does not exist.ö
He also discusses witch-doctors and sorcerers, who are believed to have immense powers in determining a manÆs fate. Thus, a curse is far more likely to have been the cause of a road accident (in African eyes) than defective brakes. Sorcery has another important effect û its secret and deadly character exacerbates tribal fears and tensions. Should anything go wrong in one community, itÆs immediately blamed on a different community.
Finally, he describes the communalism in Africa. Communalism, or sharing things out, sounds constructive. In practice, it may indeed be the only efficient way to keep a lot of people alive when resources are very scarce. But it also seems to generate a locust mentality when applied to running a country.
Running through the book is a strong scepticism about the very nature of æcountriesÆ in Africa. Partly, itÆs because much of the population is nomadic. Any attempt to create a nation alienates the nomad, just as the Tuareg nomads are being gradually wiped out in North Africa. Kapuscinski points out that most of the wars in Africa are civil wars, a symptom of a weak and impotent state.
Just as in the other great English-language book about Africa by a Polish writer, Heart of Darkness, itÆs hard to see much optimism in KapuscinskiÆs vision of the future. Hopefully, instead of drifting off into a nightmare (ôthe horror, the horrorö as Joseph Conrad put it) increased Chinese investment will bring some benefits. At this point, any economic attention to Africa canÆt go amiss û whatever the protestations amongst energy nationalists in the West.
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