The heart of Africa

Posted: December 16, 2010 in Africa

We’ve now spent 3 months in Africa and have packed a lot in. During our time we have had a lot of experiences, some good, some bad. This blog tries to put into words how Africa had made us feel and what we think about the places we have visited and the people we have met.

Before you read on, I just want to point out that our opinions are not intended to be judgmental, rather observational. The fact is Africa has divided our thoughts – on the one hand we have loved being here, on the other we have been left frustrated and jaded. However, overall it has been an incredible experience and one we will not forget.

The Africa we love

* Warm friendly people who stop you in the street to say hello and ask how you are – they don’t want anything from you, they are just genuinely interested

* Beautiful smiley children – the innocence of kids is a beautiful thing and they get really excited at the sight of white skin, especially in smaller villages

* Pole Pole (slow slow) – most people are so chilled they are practically asleep and the rhythm of life is much more relaxing than the grind of London (though big cities are the exception)

* If you stop and speak to a stranger, then the vast majority will make the effort to help you even if they don’t speak English – the polar opposite of London where people distrust strangers in the main

* The scenery is breathtaking, words can’t describe how beautiful this continent is – what has struck us the most is the variety of the scenery and just how vast each country is

The marmite effect – the Africa we don’t enjoy

*The endlessly cruel poverty gap that traps millions of Africans in squalor and a standard of living that would make grown men and women cry – yes we have social and economic problems in the UK but they pale into insignificance compared to the quality of life people endure in the slums/settlements/townships (edit at will).

* Crazy selfish drivers who don’t look where they are going and are as erratic as a dog with rabies

* Deep, dark, choking pollution flowing in waves of cancer inducing clouds

* Scammers, schemers, liars and thieves – every major town has its share of disreputable rogues and white people stick out like sore thumbs here

* Liar Liar – the inability to tell the truth, instead telling you what they think you want to hear e.g.”Is the bus leaving at 8am?”; “Yes” – then the bus leaves at 11am

* Lack of control and organisation – nobody takes charge, nobody knows who is running the show and it’s often every man for himself

* The mind numbing tedium of bus journeys that drain your will to live – too many baggage handlers compete to have the loudest voice yet nobody has any sense of order or structure, so bags are loaded, then unloaded, then reloaded differently, then too many passengers are allowed on board, so more bags have to be rammed into already full baggage compartments. The end result is an angry driver tooting his horn (not a euphemism!) but doing nothing and passengers waiting in a sweat box for one of the baggage handlers to have a eureka moment.

* The love of being officious – some men here love the feeling of importance and power, even if it is simply being able to wear a suit to work, they love to demonstrate their elevated position to the everyday man on the street; the favourite is a schoolboy obsession with multiple pens in the shirt pocket a la 80’s.

Parting thoughts

Africa has been described by some commentators as a sleeping giant. I think hibernating giant is more apt. There are too many people who are content to sit back and let someone else take responsibility, so decision making is slow and often inconsistent. It would take a sea change in mentality for the majority of people to bring much needed structure and co-ordination to the huge energy you can feel in all the countries. It would be churlish to accuse African people of laziness; just that their energy is often misdirected.

Of course there are many intelligent, often highly educated, men and women who are working tirelessly to improve Africa’s global influence. Organisations such as EADC which brings together countries like Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and others in economic co-operation are the start of a move to greater participation and tapping in to the collective potential. However, the layers of rotten government where corruption and violence prevail first need to be peeled and systematically confined to the past. Just take a peek at the recent election chaos in Cote d’Ivoire and the quick exit of the opposition parties in Egypt’s first round of elections.

What saddens me most  is the negative role that Europe has played in the past of many of the African countries we visited. The colonial powers of England, Holland and Portugal (and others) plundered resources and then following independence back in the 1960s, pulled out and left behind chaos (undoubtedly on purpose to ensure they can retain influence and economic control over Africa).

The contribution of Europe to Africa is bizarre – on the one hand Victorian Britain fought hard to rid Africa of the despised Arab dominated slave trade, yet in the same breath it exploited the land and left behind a chaotic administration that lacked the skills to effectively handle independence. The result is a hibernating giant that is only now showing signs of emerging from the darkness though it will surely take multiple decades before Africa takes its rightful place in the world.

We really hope that the African people are given the chances we take for granted in the west and that privileges such as education don’t remain the preserve of the wealthy and lucky few who find a benevolent sponsor.


james & muneeza x

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