What is Africa like?

Thanks to Chris Blattman for pointing me, through this post, to the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina. He recommended the interview. I gladly followed the lead and absolutely loved it.

It also got me thinking – I too, am an outsider in Ghana, working in the development sector with a local research institution. What do I really think about Ghana? and about Africa? I actually don’t have an answer to that. How do I process a situation here, or get things done? I know something about that. What am I learning from here? I can figure that out too. In a previous post 3 weeks after reaching Accra, I had written about how easy it was to start out and settle in. Now, I am two weeks short of completing four months in Ghana. So these thoughts make sense.

First things first. I am completely aware of my overwhelming ignorance about the continent. About the specifics. Yes, I was aware Africa is not a country. And, I guess one of the good things about growing up in India is that our parents did not need to show us images of naked starving children from across the seas. They were always there, just across the street. In spite of that though, I knew about famines in Ethiopia and Sudan. We read the basic geography of Africa in secondary school. We obviously did Indian history in good detail too, especially in a broad-brushed manner – choosing to focus selectively through 5000 years of civilisation (that we Indians take very seriously) – on a narrative of our past glory. So yes I know of a Nelson Mandela (because of his association with Mahatma Gandhi). I also had heard of dictators and guerrillas. No names, just information that they existed. And about diamonds. First movie set in Africa that I remember – Gods Must be Crazy. It was really funny and we used to watch it over and over. I was very aware of how people of African origin dominated the sports world.

Very superficial. And basic – this is all I knew as I grew up. Along the way, I picked up little bits here and there – some that interested me and so I kept them in mind, some that didn’t interest me, so I forgot about them. So yes, I will never claim to be an Africa expert, not even to be a Ghana/Accra expert (just as I will never claim to be an India expert). Life, as it unfolds around me, is almost always anecdotal. While I carry some generalised impressions, I will never make the mistake of assuming I have completely understood the people or their successes/failures. All I can quote are examples – “this is what I saw in city X at this time. This suggests that…” or “this is what person Y told me about this issue. I think that is an interesting view because it supports/refutes the claims made by person Z (who may be a policy maker/practitioner/academic/layman)”.  I did not think of development work in any part of Africa as being any more different or difficult than in say, any part of India. Obviously, the solutions could not be the same. I have always believed that its more important to cultivate the right perspective to look at a situation – often more important than even coming up with a solution.

All this of course does not in any way mean I don’t want to know ‘why’ something works and ‘why’ something else doesn’t. I am. But learning is a slow process, and I am prepared to be patient in my quest.

Now, coming back to Binyavanga Wainaina – listening to the interview made me realise there was so much of the conventional image of Africa that I had never heard of previously. Wainaina is oozing sarcasm in this piece. Firstly, I do not feel any special love for Africa/Ghana/Accra. And I dont feel the need to justify my existence here.

With the mental framework I carry, I am reasonably sure I will never make the mistake of generalising Africa or Africans and talking of them in halo-ed stereotypes. If anything, the three months in Accra have given me a completely diverse picture. Again, Accra is not Ghana. Everyone in Ghana knows that and keeps repeating that. It is probably as true that Ghana is not like the rest of Africa.

So what have I seen so far? Glimpses from my life here:

  • There are a million hawkers on the roads, at traffic signals, selling almost everything possible – maps, clothes, footballs, phone cards, bread, water, fruits, key chains, pens, magazines…everything. A lot of people are working very hard to make a living.
  • Religion is a big deal here and Christians in particular, are very loud in their prayers. Its like a thousand big parties at different places every Sunday morning and whenever else they schedule special sessions.
  • Everyone bargains – just like in India. It is annoying at times, but mostly, just banter followed by a compromise.  There is a thriving local economy; and a parallel over-priced, but cushy expat economy.
  • The roads here are impressively well laid, but the open gutters on both sides are not and neither is the traffic management.
  • As academic researchers or research managers, people are excellent and usually have great insights from long years of experience. I am reasonably sure they hold their own when negotiating with the government or international agencies. But admin is a mess.
  • I have seen/met many feisty, outgoing women. Is that a sign of women’s empowerment in general? Probably not. But its strikingly different from India.
  • There are slums, people living in boxes. Poverty is easily visible in the rural and semi-urban areas I have visited as well
  • There seems to be a thriving democracy. Politicians bicker, allege and ridicule each other. People I have talked to make judgments on the government’s performance, grumble about their problems and often, tell me they are proud to be Ghanaian.
  • Corruption – I have seen it play out both ways – in situations which could have  been easily exploited, there were helpful government officials (immigration personnel, police, etc) and the other extreme where some officials not only insisted on being paid off, but also made it  a really tortuous experience for us. And a third, where some people just try their luck and look for a little pay-off, but refrain from pushing it.

None of this is surprising; or exciting or anymore depressing than a scene in another part of the world. That is really the reality for me. In any case, reading/hearing about anything in Africa surely doesn’t infuriate me as much as reading about the dismal public policy failure in regulating the obscene global (speculative) financial sector.

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