By Chet Yarbrough
20 Days in Africa
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.
Having traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) before, we expected a cultural adventure. OAT did not disappoint. Along with spectacular scenic opportunities, events were scheduled to give travelers a more intimate and personal understanding of the host countries visited.
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. The mine workers are ecstatic when, earlier this year, the mine owners offer 7% of their back wages to continue working.
In visiting a small village, we find that 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 harvesting profits, and elephant overpopulation in restricted habitat reserves.
Putting aside these troubles in the big three industries, there seems a leadership deficit in a country with so much untapped potential.
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 un-systematically utilized. Government leaders are often corrupted by the power they wield over government employment, contracts, policies, and finances.
The history of Africa seems to set a table for an economic feast that is consumed by everyone except the vast majority of Africans.
Because of the European scramble for wealth and power (between the 15th and early 20th century), the continent of Africa was colonized by foreign rulers. Great Britain, Portugal, France, and Belgium carved Africa into nation-states in the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Without regard to native societies a multi-state continent was formed based on the greed and hubris of occupying foreign governments. The irony of Africa’s artificial nation-state creations was 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 became a melting pot for white immigrants arriving from different nations of the world. In America, native American Indians were slaughtered or displaced by the advance of “civilization” with the increasing influx of foreign, largely white, immigrants.
To a degree, something similar has occurred in Africa. In the early colonization of Africa, each nation-state was composed of native tribes who established societies controlled by early Europeans. (The most obvious parallel to America’s slaughter and displacement of native Americans, is the slave trade that killed or displaced tens of millions of native Africans.) As white European controllers are thrown out of Africa, the mixture of remaining native African cultures boiled over like an over-heated melting pot.
Either because of religion, ethnicity, or differing societal norms, one factional group stepped on another’s freedom. Conflict rose; in some cases, with violent and deadly results. In America, “boiling over” is evident in the civil rights movement, anti-war rallies, women’s rights marches, and elections of incompetent Presidents. In Africa, it is evident in the taking of private property without compensation, inter-state commerce inefficiency, equal rights movements for women, and rule by notorious leaders like Idi Amin, and Joseph Kony.
Africa is incredibly beautiful.
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 African 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 scheduled 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. Simply changing borders is not the answer. But, like early America, sections of Africa should consider their own Continental Congresses to provide government services that a single 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. This would allow each nation to retain its identity within a union of states of similar tribes and cultures that would wield power that is not reserved by independent 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 consumer 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 the nation’s wealth to create paved roads into growth corridors of their states.
When foreign companies see 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 which can add to the wealth of a nation-state or the corruption of a leader. Each President of a respective nation-state remains in control of his country in a federalist system.
The emphasis on education must be reinforced with adequate funding from respective nation-states. In time, that education will remove overtly corrupt leaders. It will not eliminate corruption but it will improve the condition of the local population.
Every village has a Chief who has a Head man who 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 as nation-states modernize.
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 government does or a foreigner thinks. Family is everything to a child.
Twenty days in Africa is a trip of a life time; especially with a guide like Manue Joao.