By Chet Yarbrough
Written by Chet Yarbrough
Twenty days in Africa does not make you an expert. But, as noted by our insightful Zimbabwe-born team leader, every visit to Africa changes both visitor and native. Manue Joao paints a picture of three nation-states that vivify the great beauty and wealth of Africa. In twenty days, the nations of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana were traveled by our group of 15 Americans; organized, directed, and helped by local guides and a host of excellent camp managers.
Manue offers a history lesson on Africa as we travel on planes, boats, buses, and Land Rovers, through the African Savannah. Today, the three major industries in Africa are mining, agriculture, and tourism. Each of these industries have troubles.
Mining for coal is a big industry in crises with falling prices, and environmental concern. African laborers are offered decent salaries but Manue notes that one coal mine had not paid their laborers for over four years. He goes on to explain—the laborers keep working because there is no alternative employment. They are ecstatic when, earlier this year, the mine owners offer 7% of their back wages to continue working.
Agriculture is constantly faced with the terrors of nature; i.e. poor rainfall, soil depletion, and animal destruction.
Tourism is troubled by ivory poaching, Rhino killing for horn profits, and animal overpopulation.
Putting aside these troubles in the big three African industries, there seems a leadership deficit in a country that has so much untapped potential. Too many Africans seem trapped in poverty when the wealth of the country is laid waste by an interstate transportation system that strangles economic growth. Trucks are lined up for hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months for transport across borders. Vast tracks of land are only accessible by dirt roads. Water, sewer, and infrastructure investment seems utilized un-systematically. Government leaders are often corrupted by the power they wield over the finances of their countries.
The history of Africa sets the table for an economic feast that is consumed by everyone except most native Africans. Because of the European scramble for wealth and power (between the 15th and early 20th century), the continent of Africa is colonized by foreign rulers. Great Britain, Portugal, France, and Belgium carve Africa into nation-states in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Without regard to native societies a multi-state continent is formed based on greed and hubris of occupying foreign governments. The irony of Africa’s artificial nation-state creations is that these arbitrary borders become a source of conflict in the African’s drive for independence.
The economic difficulties of Africa remind one of the early days of America. Every state of the original 13 colonies was a kingdom unto itself until the First Continental Congress in 1774. Though the 13 colonies are largely populated by white English, Germans, and French, with a growing population of Black slaves, each colony becomes a melting pot for immigrants arriving from different nations of the world. Native Americans are slaughtered by the advance of “civilization” with the increasing influx of foreign, largely white, Americans.
To a degree, something similar has occurred in Africa. Each African nation-state is comprised of white Europeans, and native tribes who establish societies within each of the nation-states created by early Europeans. Just as in America, the mixture of cultures often boils over like an over-heated melting pot. Either because of religion, ethnic differences, or different societal norms, one factional group treads on another’s freedom. Conflict rises; in some cases, with violent and deadly results. In America, it is evident in the civil rights movement, anti-war rallies, women’s rights marches, the election of incompetent Presidents; etc. In Africa, it is evident in the taking of private property without compensation, inter-state commerce inefficiency, equal rights for women, and rule by force and corruption in the case of leaders like Idi Amin, and Joseph Kony.
Africa is incredibly beautiful. In sunrises and sunsets; in exposure to the largest and most beautiful animals in the world; in spectacular views of Victoria Falls, and with many Africans’ heart-felt acceptance of tourists. A traveler sees and feels the radiance of nature and the kindness of all human beings. But, the economic hardship of the general population in the face of such great potential wealth is disheartening.
The heart of the failure of the nation-states is said to lie at the feet of poor leadership and corruption. Though there is undoubted truth in that observation, it seems an excuse for failure. Every presentation by indigenous Africans notes how important education is to their and their family’s success. It may be that the people we met are an exception but every culture has its exceptions. It is these exceptions that modernize the world.
Sacrifice for education and family values are obvious characteristics of the people we met. Stories were told of the sacrifice that a Principal makes to teach children English; a story of a prostitute who sells herself with the intent of saving enough to finish school and start her own business; a story of an un-wed mother who is first in her class in high school and goes on to college—all are native Africans emphasizing the importance of family and education.
One is drawn to the conclusion that corruption and poor leadership are a stage of early development that will be ameliorated (not eliminated) over time. There is no quick solution but a first step would be to re-value the indigenous culture of each part of Africa. Changing borders is not the answer. But, like early America, sections of Africa should consider their own Continental Congresses to provide government services that one state is unable to provide; i.e. services like interstate commerce, military preparedness, and a common currency. Every power not given to this centralized government would remain in the hands of respective nation-states.
Today, the economic strength of Africa is being strangled by border crossing regulations that delay interstate commerce. Undoubtedly, corruption is exacerbated by bribes to get goods across borders. Respective state leaders are reluctant to give up control of borders because they get a piece of the interstate border crossing fees. The greed of leaders can be co-opted by making them understand they will make more money with the opening of their borders by using some of their wealth to create paved roads into growth corridors of their states. When a foreign company sees they can get to their mine, or have water for agricultural development, they will invest. Government leaders can negotiate deals with foreign businesses that demand training of native populations in the management work of new businesses. When more Africans are employed, a source for government taxation is created.
The emphasis on education must be reinforced. In time, that education will remove overtly corrupt leaders. It will not eliminate corruption but it will improve the condition of the local population. There is a cost inherent in this push for modernization. Manue tells of the family structure that exists in the three countries visited. That close family relationship will be diminished by modernization.
Every village has a Chief who has a Head man that supervises the village. These positions are inherited; not earned by performance. This familial arrangement will be compromised by modernization because performance will become a more important criterion for Chief or Head man designations. Money and power, rather than family relationship, will become prevalent.
Another cost will be borne by the natural attributes of an animal kingdom that surprises and delights world travelers. Manue notes that Botswana has an animal refuge that can support 20,000 elephants when 100,000 elephants roam the countryside. Action is needed to control nature’s environment. Exercising that control will turn a wilderness into more of a free-form zoo. The wildness of a Safari will be diminished.
Love for Africa is clearly evident in the people we met. One suspects our visit is a sanitized view of the real life of most Africans. However, our view is through the eyes of a rich, modern nation. A young African boy or girl born into a family of loving parents knows what he/she knows and cares little about what a foreigner thinks. Twenty days in Africa is a trip of a life time; especially with a guide like Manue Joao.