Monday, February 7, 2011

Africa - Random Rants

I'm in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa. I'm sitting in a cool shady bar at our campsite overlooking scenic Lake Malawi. Life expectancy in Malawi is only about 40 years. But here at the lake we're most of us blissfully unaware of that fact. The lake is the big draw for tourists. It's huge, the second largest lake in Africa after Lake Victoria, clear and warm, and it contains fresh water. Strangely out of place I hear familiar tunes by the Beatles, Alanis, Santana playing on the CD player. Two arduous days in the truck put us here after leaving Dar Es Salaam at 5 am the other day. It's morning so I don't avail myself of the ice cold beer or other liquid refreshments available here for next to nothing in this little oasis but come evening I, along with my fellow travelers, will play some volleyball, drink a few beers, chit chat at the tables set up in the pleasant surroundings, and eventually turn in. We're spending two days here, a welcome departure from our normal schedule. The long days in the truck are over Mwangi, our guide, assures us. The rest of the trip to Vic Falls will be more leisurely. But our somewhat uncomfortable travels are nothing compared to the situation most people here find themselves in. I'm reading Paul Theroux's book Dark Star Safari as we travel and I'm in almost perfect geographic synchronization with the story, which is about his 2002 overland trip from Cairo to Capetown. We're both in Malawi now. His book is either a great choice or a bad one considering where I am and what I'm doing.

Lake Malawi at Chitimba Camp (S10.58488° E34.17537°)
Theroux is an accomplished writer who lived in Africa in the 60s. He came as a young and idealistic Peace Corps volunteer who lived in Uganda and here in Malawi for quite a few years. He taught school, learned about the people, learned their languages, and dedicated himself to the cause of African independence then recently attained after decades of colonial rule by the European nations. He wished through his efforts to raise the level of literacy and through that increase the standard of living. He hoped someday to see a free and self sufficient Africa. Dark Star Safari describes his return to Africa to rediscover the Africa he had so fondly enshrined in his memory. He did not find it. What he did find after 40 years of independence and 40 years of well intentioned international aid were countries much worse off than they were when he lived here. This is the Africa we're seeing on our tour. For the most part we're protected from the stark reality of Africa. We're cocooned in our big truck, all of us white and in relative terms, wealthy. We chatter amoungst ourselves about the latest music, our other travels, Facebook trivia, the beauty of the countryside passing outside the windows which are always open wide to encourage the fresh breeze that helps keep us cool in the big non-airconditioned vehicle.

We are indeed in a cocoon when you consider the security measures our touring company enforces to keep us and our precious belongings safe. Everything carried on the truck is securely locked in place at all times. When we stop for a break we close and lock all windows. We have a lock box in which we can store valuables. The box or safe is never referred to by that name though. We assigned it a code word, salmon. When somebody wants to access it we say, I want some salmon. Every campground we visit, indeed every supermarket or other place where money is exchanged, is gated and without exception guarded by security personnel often armed with automatic weapons. We stay in peaceful, self-contained campgrounds. We buy groceries and snacks in a nearby supermarket before setting up for the night. Once inside we mostly stay inside. We have a bar, music, Internet if lucky, laundry service, meals provided by our camp chef, Mr. Mwoi, and each other. It's strongly recommended that we not leave the camp alone, especially at night. There are various activities like trips to African villages or recreations like snorkeling available. For most of those we're accompanied by a local man who guides us and, I presume, keeps us out of trouble. It's a bizarre situation once you open your eyes to it.

Part of the reason Theroux left Africa was because he was living and teaching in Kampala, in Uganda, during the rise of the crazed dictator Idi Amin. He realized where things were headed and got out while it was still possible. Earlier he had taught at a small English-founded school near Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. He describes how the once beautiful and well kept homes and neighborhoods from his past have degenerated into broken down hovels, the once neat streets strewn with litter. Nothing's been maintained or repaired during the 40 years since he left. His old school, the Songe Hill School, once boasted a fine library with many books and current magazines; it was well lighted and in constant use by the staff and students. These days it's a shambles. Few books remain. The rest were stolen by students or perhaps other people who were likely on the verge of stavation and who sold them to buy food. Probably. Despite the fact that the school is being run by an old friend of his, a dedicated woman who has the best interests of her community and her country at heart, the windows are broken, only one light fixture has a working light bulb and it serves the entire library. The problem, she tells him, is no money; this is a constant refrain he heard all over Africa.

In the book he sometimes thinks out loud and includes us in the converstion he is having with himself: how could things have come to this pass with so much help being continually available from western countries? He describes his ride on a decrepit train through Tanzania. The railroad was built by the Chinese during the time just afer Tanzania gained its independence from Great Britain when that country was entertaining the idea of becoming a socialist state. The railroad has not seen one bit of maintenance, nor has one meter of new track been laid, since the Chinese left. Not only are the cars in horrible condition but they're filthy, the bathrooms stink, the food is awful. He provides some of his own answers to that question.

Mismanagement is rampant in Africa. There is corruption at every level of government. Theroux lays much of the blame on the aid given to the various African states through NGOs and well intentioned foreign governments. It has encouraged an unhealthy dependence on people other than Africans to solve uniquely African problems. There has developed a culture of securing aid at all costs  -- the crooked officials that comprise most African governments consider the aid a source of revenue, a huge source. Securing that revenue has become the main focus of those officials. He goes so far as to suggest that they might not want conditions in their countries to improve because then the aid would stop. The well will have run dry. Add to that the grim fact that there are countless petty bureauocrats siphoning off the aid before the people who really need it see one penny. Moreover, he considers most of the people working for those NGO's and aid organizations profiteers, just another layer of bureauocracy whose members get paid to help Africans but who in reality  dilute what eventually does reach the poor. It really pisses him off that the newest Land Rovers and Land Cruisers one sees invariably belong to the well known NGOs or relief agencies and that they seldom have offices in the poorest section of town. Their officers are part of the elite class in African society.

Tanzania - typical house of mud and sticks

Typical home - Tanzania
I had wondered why I was seeing so many locals wearing T-shirts boasting the Detroit Tigers, or advertising Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch — organizations that have about as much relevance here as today's Dow-Jones average. I hadn't made the connection yet. Those T-shirts, indeed much of the clothing and footwear we were seeing, were donations that came from charities all over the world. Gee, that sounds nice at first. We're doing some good here after all, I thought. But here again Theroux provided some valuable insights that are not so self-serving. He writes that shipments of clothing are routinely diverted and sold by petty bureaucrats to wholesalers who then distribute them to small scale retailers, who turn around and sell them to the impoverished people we see wearing them. Everyone in a position to take a cut does so and pockets the money while the needy get doubly shortchanged. In Africa it's just business as usual.

Used shoe store - roadside Tanzania
Theroux offers many more insights and valuable information about Africa and the African situation in his book. Another of his musings involves the question of why there is so much garbage about, so many tin shacks and shantytowns, so little effort put into the simple upkeep of a home. Due to difficult problems faced by farmers, continuing drought conditions, etc., many rural folks have migrated to the already overcrowded cities. But there is no work for them there. Unemployment is high —  more than 50% — and we constantly see men hanging around in the shade, poking their heads out of doorways to watch our truck pass— they're obviously idle and prefer to let their womenfolk do the heavy lifting. There seems to be a shortage of African innovative effort or business acumen. People are concerned with the basics, sure. Getting food on the table, paying the rent. But, he asks, does it take that much effort to pick up the litter in your front yard? Perhaps it's because of those 40 years of handouts. Too much dependence on the Arabs and the Indians to do the work of business and accounting. By the way, both of these minorities were essentially driven from their adoptive countries by dictators insisting that only Africans should own African concerns. He advances the suggestion, and he's not alone in this, that perhaps the best thing we in the first world can do for Africans is to walk out and leave them to do it on their own. If subsistence farming is what they want, or if joining the corporation dominated first world is what they want, they should be allowed to do that. Unfortunately, Africa has so many valuable products and natural resources and there are many hungry corporations waiting to develop them and exploit the native peoples, I sincerely doubt Theroux's ideas will ever come to pass. Good luck Africa.

In one of my other posts, I commented about how this type of trip wouldn't work for everyone. We're on a kind of forced march covering countless miles of country that, were I traveling alone, I would be experiencing in a different, a more real way. I don't have the courage of a Theroux or of my friends Kirk and Lynn from Homer who traveled through Africa on bicycles in the 80s, so I reckon this is the only way I'll ever be able to see it. And we're camping every night. I mentioned the tents we're using earlier. They're heavy, probably around 40 pounds, made of thick oiled cotton canvas and if you're used to a nice Sierra Designs 3 pound backpacking tent, as I am, they're plenty tough to set up. I drag the dreadful thing to a chosen spot, a shady one if possible, and with much cursing erect it before hurrying off to supper. Then in the morning before breakfast, we bring them down. They are difficult to pack, especially if wet, but breakfast is ready by the time we get the ungainly things stowed inside the truck. We wolf down some eggs and toast, fruit, coffee or tea, wedge our bags into the truck and climb up into our seats. From 10 to 15 hours later, we repeat the whole process.

The other problem is that if you like to take photos it's virtually impossible to get good ones from the madly bouncing truck windows. Covering as much ground as we are every day the truck simply cannot be stopped for photo opps as if we were traveling by private car or motorcycle. I got very frustrated about that as the days wore on.

Okay, I'll stop ranting now. Things have possibly changed in Malawi since Theroux wrote his book. I have not been to Lilongwe but our travels yesterday through the northern portion of the country revealed a verdant and productive looking country especially when contrasted with neighboring Tanzania and Kenya. I'll have more to say about Malawi in the next entry. We have a great group of folks and a fine crew managing our tour. Even if what we're seeing is only a small piece of Africa it will nevertheless be a memorable experience, and one I'll aways treasure.

Typical Malawi brick house