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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Africa, Mon Amour–The Mess Of The Dark Continent

Henri Vibberts had never been to Africa, and his first visit was to the most unlikely country of the continent – Mauritania, a Saharan, desolate, empty place of dunes, basaltic outcrops, and once flourishing oases now reduced to a single well and a few date palms, smaller every year as  shifting sands, sandstorms, and the North wind push the desert farther and farther south. 

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Henri had always wanted to visit Africa after reading Burton, Mungo Park, and Paul du Chaillu.  They all barely escaped with their lives as they trekked through its uncharted forests. Burton went temporarily blind and deaf, and was nearly crippled in his attempt to reach Lake Tanganyika.  Park was sold and sold again as a slave, bartered for animals and weapons, kept alive only because of his barter value.

Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, perhaps the best fictional account of primitive Africa and the white man’s tenuous place within it, captures both the European imagination of a tribal place and the savagery therein.  Kurtz, at first fascinated by the primitive, sacrificial rituals of upriver Africans, comes to adopt them.  The more savage and primitive he becomes, the more confounding is his colonial whiteness; and the combination of both, he feels, will afford him native kingship and European riches.  

However as he dies, he utters the words, “The horror….the horror”, for he has seen what he has become and the ineluctable, irresistible savagery of the human soul.

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So Henri was disappointed by Mauritania and its capital, Nouakchott, a desperately poor, wind- and sand-blown, desolate place of tent cities, mangy camels, and disheartened and disinherited Moors, forced from the desert and their nomadic life because of drought and an aridity which offered no food for them, their goats, or their camels.

He was taken with the desert, however, surprised at its geologic diversity – dunes, red, Martian landscapes, valleys, and hills – and with its serenity, an almost impossible immensity of sand and sky, a place not surprisingly the spiritual inspiration of Christianity.

The hospitality of the desert was out of The Arabian Nights and Tuareg and Berber lore – no traveler turned away, and no expense spared for his comfort.   The méchoui, a dish of freshly-slaughtered, roasted lamb and couscous eaten on the open roof deck of the prefet of the village under a full moon; the conversation, the attentiveness of his hosts, the delicacy of the meat, the unleavened bread, and the endless thimblefuls of mint tea were both part of his fanciful imaginings and a very real gracious hospitality set within a most inhospitable environment. 

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There was a another, less hospitable, less magical side to Moorish Mauritania.  Black Africans from south of the Senegal River were taken as slaves to work the irrigated lands on the north; and only in 1981 did the country abolish slavery.  

Slavery however was commonly practiced throughout Africa.  In the 18th century Mungo Park wrote not only of his own captivity but of the normal, ordinary practice of taking slaves as the spoils of endless tribal warfare, and the African tribal participation in the European slave trade which enabled its profitability.  The fact that the Moors persisted in the practice into will into the 20th century is neither here nor there, but only an indication of their cultural remoteness and cultural insularity.

His sub-Saharan experiences were not only pre-conditioned by Conrad, Park, and du Chaillu, but by the historical records of African corruption, mismanagement, venality, political indifference, and oppression.  In the decades since independence from Britain, France, and Portugal, the quality of life in the region has only deteriorated.  Yet the international community held to a hopeful optimism that the systems of governance, management, and economic development left by the European powers and the new, entrepreneurial patriotism of the continent’s new leaders would combine to produce rapid, accelerating prosperity.

Nothing of the sort happened.  Decades of tribal rivalries and the rise to power of opportunistic leaders anxious to profit from their leadership led to years of increasing poverty, indifferent governance, official pillage, and venality.  Civil wars and unrest were the favored means of settling differences and acquiring land, resources, and wealth.  

During the course of these wars and in their aftermath, crime became endemic, and whatever modern social fabric remained after colonial rule, it quickly unraveled.  Much of Africa was ungoverned, chaotic, and dangerous.  No American or European willingly went to Nairobi, Abidjan, Lagos, Johannesburg, or Luanda.  Not only was crime rampant in the cities, but given the corrupt nature of national leadership, terrorist cells easily established themselves in the countryside.  Mali, once a peaceful, moderate haven in Africa became a terrorist redoubt, home to al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Tuareg separatists. 

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Nowhere was there good governance, economic progress, social function, or optimism.  Big Men continued to rule as Presidents for Life, democracy was whimsical at best, and poverty rates continued to rise. Africa, despite some promise after independence, had become a sinkhole.

The expatriate life and that of the international development consultant, however, is insulated from the worst misery of Africa.  Henri quickly found the five star hotels to his liking – imported French food and wine, impeccable service, Olympic pools, lively bars, good restaurants, spas, and good company.  Even in the worst places, there was always a European oasis, and life within its community was pleasant.

Brown and Martha Pineda are Graham Greene’s lovers in his book The Comedians.  Brown is the manager of an old, Victorian, grande dame of hotel in Port-au-Prince, and Martha is the wife of a South American ambassador.  Greene knew that their love affair could never happen beyond Haiti, nor could that of any two lovers outside its voodoo, charmed, romantic world. 

There would have been no lovemaking in the balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been for Haiti itself.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed. 

Lovers danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cape Haitian; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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Foreign travel is a welcome release from family, mores, and responsibility.  For the traveler on the plane to Ouagadougou, wife, children, church, and community quickly fade and disappear.  It is not that Burkina Faso – or Chad, Mali, or Nigeria – have any real promise.  All are undeveloped, poorly-governed, and inchoate; but to the foreign traveler they represent a chance, opportunity, and romance.  Insecurity, disease, heat, dust, and bad food mean little in the context of romance – not necessarily a sexual romance, but a storybook one.

Henri like most of his consultant colleagues saw no contradiction in their good life and the misery around them.  They were sent to these benighted countries to do good or at least to promote the reforms needed to assure a better life for all, so they were entitled to a place of comfort, familiarity, good company, and rest and relaxation once they returned from ‘the field’ – harsh, impossible urban slums, shantytowns, desperate rural villages, and malaria-infested fishing posts.

After a few years Henri knew that no matter what he did, and no matter how generous the grant or loan from international agencies, Africa would remain mired in corruption, theft, and political indifference.  The more money loaned by the World Bank, the more ‘diversion’ of its resources to Switzerland, the more official apathy to development, and the more certainty that renegotiated contracts would end up just as non-performing as the original.  Under these conditions, trips to Africa became less about engineering positive change, than five-star sojourns.

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The liberal press insistently looks for signs of optimism for Africa but even it can find none.  Nowhere is progress assured, and everywhere countries are at best mired in inefficiency, corruption, and bad management and at worst places of civil war, social chaos, and shambles.

Even the ‘best’ of countries such as Ghana – those that have managed reasonable governments and civil order - are poor (per capita GDP barely $2000), undeveloped, and stalled.

What to make of this persistent miasma of poverty, bad management, corruption, and economic underdevelopment?  It is hard to ignore countries like China and India which had similarly desperate levels of poverty only a few decades ago but which are now politically influential international economic powerhouses; or South Korea which as late as the 70s was an undeveloped, rural, agrarian society but now an economic force?

Is it enough to blame the legacy of colonialism for such persistent economic underdevelopment?  Hardly, since in the same period countries which suffered under the same corrupt, inefficient, or oppressive regimes (Maoist China, Soviet Russia, Soviet-influenced India) made rapid strides.  Should one blame climate or geography?  The natural resources of countries like Angola or Nigeria could easily have been transformed into national wealth and rapid economic development.  Is persistent, endemic tribalism the reason?  Possibly, but India has managed success within a restrictive caste system, and Mandarin and Communist China have both been traditionally conservative.

One can only conclude that Africa’s ills are largely self-inflicted; and until countries shake off persistent tribalism, bad cultural choices, and endemic inefficiencies, they will remain backward and impoverished.

Henri gave up on Africa and found lucrative contracts in the former Soviet Union and Eastern and Central Europe – countries that had suffered under communism but which were eager and ready to leave that legacy behind and move forward.  His clients actually wanted what he was offering, and were not looking for ways to divert his company’s resources.  More importantly, he was working in Europe, place of kings, cathedrals, courts, palaces, and comfort.

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