Monday, February 02, 2009

Just In Time

Hello everyone - OK, it looks like I've procrastinated horribly on my blog, and for that I apologise. My New Year's resolution is to take it up again and try and be more conscientious (when at home, although I have more spare time, I also have many more distractions than when on the road, so it is an effort to keep writing when I could be doing random, meaningless pottering instead). To kick me off below is a post that I almost finished when I returned from Morocco but never got around to polishing, and once it was left to one side it kept getting harder to come back to it. So better to finish it (it might end rather abruptly) and start the new year (and decade) afresh. So without further ado, please set you minds back 11 months...

It looks like I came back home at just the right time: on the evening of my arrival it started to snow closing down the entire country for the past week, and Morocco, as a parting gift, gave me a nice, painful cough combined with a fever. The one saving grace of the latter is that I'm at home and can snuggle up and subsist on a diet of camomile tea with honey and chicken soup in a centrally heated house without mourning lost vacation days. Being ill whilst on the road is an unpleasant experience. The lack of public transport meant that I also didn't feel bad about not going into work today due to my cough (I would have felt a bit embarrassed, after 6 weeks of holiday, to miss my first day back) and I could just as easily get my work done from home.

But that's incidental. This post is supposed to be an epilogue, a round up, of my thoughts and impressions of my trip. What have I learnt? what questions have been answered? what new questions am I posing? have I changed some of my previous views? What will I cherish? what will I look back on with dismay?

In very concrete terms the trip has strengthened my conviction in the importance of taking the time for simple social interactions - greetings and smiles. In the West we lead lives that are often very rushed and when going about routine chores such as grocery shopping or even just taking the bus we are often miles away in our heads with our everyday worries that we routinely ignore the people who are providing the service. Yet I find that when I take a leaf out of Malian etiquette (although, to be fair, it's not just Mali, but is common to many other developing countries) and stop to, for example, smile and ask the cashier at the local Sainsbury's how they are or nod and give a little "good morning" to your bus driver. Invariably there will be a positive response in return and it makes you (and I hope your interlocutor) feel a little lighter and brighter (the proper word should be gayer, but you can't say that anymore - at least not without eliciting a mocking snicker).

But enough of that, what about the bigger picture? In the media Africa is synonymous with poverty, suffering and corruption. It is, however, a mighty big place with a dizzying variety of cultures, languages, mores and problems and seeing it, or even referring to it, as some monolithic, homogeneous entity is not only deeply mistaken but also disingenuous. What I saw and the conclusions and views I drew from my experiences are confined to a small chunk of West Africa and I've no idea how relevant they are to the rest of the continent. There are a couple of things that struck me that I wasn't expecting before heading out there: the lack of initiative and the colonial legacy.

The lack of initiative for me is the strange dichotomy whereby the locals are, in certain respects ingenious at making the most of the little they have and manage to make utilitarian goods from what is, effectively, junk, there is no upscaling of this ability to solve problems on a slightly grander scale. As I mentioned before the Niger river is the main artery of Mali along which most trade is carried (and it was a lot more so some 50 years or more ago), and yet there are no jetties along its entire length. At the main port in Mopti stevedores have to wade in to their waists to get to the cargo pinasses and then wade out again carrying 50kg bags of rice, or other goods. A simple jetty would make their lives a lot easier and make the loading and unloading of goods infinitely more efficient and faster, and yet they are conspicuous by their absence. It's not as if a jetty is an immensely technical piece of patent-protected hardware, hell, even I could probably knock one together. I'm not sure what to attribute this historico-cultural inertia ("this is the way things have always been done and so we shall continue doing them so") to, possibly the highly autocratic tribal social structure where if something isn't ordained by the chief then it doesn't happen, but I do think that it's one of the main factors. And it's not just jetties, but a whole host of practices that are obviously inefficient and incrementally add up to stall progress. Of course some people would argue that progress is a relative term and that we shouldn't impose our Western worldview on people, but then without such derided progress the people will remain mired in poverty and ill health.

Then there is colonialism and its effects. When visiting the Bamako museum I was surprised to learn that the French only gained control of the land now known as Mali between 1892 and 1905. Mali gained its independence in 1960. The French had been in charge for less than 70 years. The story is pretty much the same for most of western and southern Africa. In that time they built a railway, roads, bridges, dams and set up institutions such as schools and an administrative bureaucracy pretty much from scratch (in the 50-odd years since little has been added except for Bamako's urban sprawl and a few more km of tarmac). Of course the French didn't do this out of altruistic benevolence but for their own gain, be it financial or political; though, given that Mali's main resources are peanuts and cotton, I'm not sure which direction the balance of payments leaned towards. And yet there is a, not uncommon, school of thought that pins all of the continent's woes to colonialism. The more I think about it and the more I see the less I can give the idea any credence: it's too facile and just smacks of over-indulgent self-flagellation by Europeans and a cop-out by Africans. European colonialism was just the last in a long line of struggles for power, the one which yanked the continent into the modern era. A rapid transition made particularly painful by the gulf between the two sides, but a transition that would have had to have been undergone at some point. Much more constructive would be to talk about how to set about fixing the many ills that plague the continent. Not that I have any answers, but it seems to me that change has to come from within and, to my eyes (and admittedly it was a superficial visit), I didn't really see much of a civil movement that would fulfil that.

Anyway, be that as it may, I thoroughly enjoyed myself there and look forward to discovering more about Africa's myriad cultures and customs (Niger and Benin have particularly jumped up my list of places to visit).