Here Comes Africa
Paige and I were walking to our car in the small village of Sebekoro in Mali, one of the six countries we've visited so far on our trip through Africa, when we experienced our first hit-and-run.
No, it wasn't another car or a bus driven by a crazed group of bandits, it was a farmer driving his donkey cart. Yep, that's right, a donkey cart. I watched as the farmer slowly drove the cart towards the car, all the time thinking he was going to turn away. No such luck. He ran right into it.
I said something to the farmer and he said something back in his language but there was no point. Neither of us had any idea what the other was saying. He just kept going and eventually was out of sight. There was little or no damage done to my car. In fact, the experience left me more surprised and amused than upset.
On some level, though, the event summed up what we have seen so far, six countries deep into the mighty African continent. This clash of old ways and new ways, of the old staid Africa and new evolving Africa is apparent everywhere we go. Many towns have no electricity, many hotels have only one phone. Still, a new modern world is creeping up on Africa. The Internet is showing its presence. Democracy is starting to take hold in kingdoms once run by dictators and socialists.
Life in Africa is a play of extremes. Everyday thrilling new environments are juxtaposed against tremendous stress. Already, we've had incredible experiences. We've gone to village weddings, which feature drums and dancing the likes of which I would not have believed possible. We've driven along the edge of the Sahara by the Atlantic Ocean, the dust and sand of the desert on one side of the windshield while mist from the ocean cleans the other side. We've camped with nomads in the desert and drank warm milk fresh from their camels in the morning. We've slept under desert moon and stars, the brightest I've ever seen. We've stayed in villages with scores of candles illuminating roadside stands by night and discovered giant, ancient Baobab trees that legend says were thrown into the ground upside down by an angry god. We stopped in the most extraordinary oasis in the middle of the Sahara where the temperature was 20 to 30 degrees cooler than it was only 40 meters away.
But such beauty carries a flipside. We've encountered colossal traffic accidents where horribly overloaded 18 wheelers overturn across the roads strewing peanuts or beer everywhere, blocking the road for miles. We've been repeatedly stopped by border patrols and policemen asking to check our papers and for a "cadeau," a nice euphemism for a bribe. We've stayed in wildly expensive hotels where they take your towels and linens in the morning, leaving you nothing for the day. Everyday we experience a dry piercing heat that tears at our throats as if we were drinking in sand. And we are always overly conscious of what we eat or drink, fearing one wrong move and we'll end up sick or dead.
This clash between the best and the worst, the old ways and the new, resonates throughout the culture, from politics to economics to social situations to the environment. The result of such a clash, though, is often change. In Morocco, Western Sahara, Senegal, the Gambia, Mauritania, and Mali, we've seen hints things are evolving in new directions. Just as it takes a long time to turn a battleship around, so will it take many years before Africa completely heads in a new direction. But from all indications, a new Africa is taking shape.
We started our trip in Morocco, one of the most developed countries in Africa with a solid infrastructure and a population of about 27 million people. Morocco is rich in phosphates used to make fertilizers, and holds roughly two-thirds of the world's reserves of phosphate rock. The stock market has been strong over the past few years but, as I said last time, I think it's because no Moroccan is allowed to invest outside which helps to keep the market inflated. From my perspective, it looks like a big Ponzi scheme.
More important, though, is the fact the king of Morocco died last year and his son, King Mohammed, took over. The father ruled Morocco with an iron hand, using a secret police not unlike the KGB to keep order. He spent lavish amounts of money on his collection of nearly 500 cars -- he had an enormous collection of top-of-the-line Mercedes -- and building palaces for himself all over the country.
His son, the new leader, is a younger, more worldly man who apparently wants to bring change to his country. He already has dismissed the man who ran the secret police, he has eased curbs on freedom of speech and he has promised to boost literacy. He is even talking about giving women more rights.
While these are moves in the right direction, sometimes the clash between the old ways and the new can be too much for the people if it happens too quickly. My guess is a backlash will come from all the years of difficulty inflicted on the citizens. Russia and Mexico met the same fate: when you try to open up a society that has been shut under a tight lid for decades, things tend to get very messy before they get better.
We saw the clash between old and new even in the Western Sahara, a region dominated by the desert and one of the least populated areas in Africa. Morocco has claimed the region since the 1970s but a guerilla group, the Polisario Front, has demanded rights to the region for decades. The UN came in to the Western Sahara in 1991 under a cease-fire agreement between the two warring factions and has promised to issue a referendum on independence from or integration into Morocco.
Like most of the UN promises, it has take much longer than expected. Already it has been nearly a decade since the UN arrived and the referendum has not been held. My guess is if the referendum doesn't happen soon, you'll see a war here. For now, though, all you see are UN guys riding around in their air-conditioned jeeps, using government money to have elaborate dinners in nice restaurants while conflict brews between the Polisario and Moroccans.
Change in Africa is a slow and lugubrious process which will take years to develop fully. The police bribes are perhaps the most base level of the corruption that still plagues the continent. In our brightly colored Mercedes, we certainly are a target. I wouldn't be surprised if officers radio ahead to let others know we are coming. Once in Dakar, we were stopped three times within 500 meters.
Typically, the police stop us to look at our papers and then demand a fee for something ludicrous. One passport official told me there was a 1,000-CFA fee each for having our passports stamped. I told him that was fine as long as I could get a receipt. He told me it was an informal charge and there would be no receipt. I told him I needed one for my government. Then he backed off, saying I didn't have to pay it. Ultimately, I gave him 1,000 CFAs for his wife.
Still, positive changes abound. When Paige and I were preparing to leave Mauritania to go to Senegal, we paused because there was an election going on between the country's socialist leader named Diouf and a new grouping led by a man named Wade. The votes were about to be tallied and the opposition promised violence if they didn't win. Diouf was one of these old-world socialist dictators I discussed last time, a man who had been running Senegal for the past 20 years. I thought it would be good to wait and see what happened. I told Paige it would be best if Diouf conceded but you never see that happen in Africa.
To my astonishment, it happened. Diouf conceded before all the votes were even tallied. Since then, there has been a relatively peaceful change of government. I'll repeat it: That just did not happen often in old Africa. The fact that it did tells me even the old order of leadership knows things are moving in a new direction, towards change and growth. Diouf will not be remembered for anything he did to help Senegal, but he'll be remembered for standing down and preventing a violent and bloody outbreak.
It's clear the people of this vast continent want change. We were eating in an African restaurant in Mauritania (that was actually owned by Koreans!) and needed someone to help us translate. The owners brought out an African woman who was working as a dish washer. To our surprise, she spoke perfect English. We learned quickly she was from Ghana, a country over a 1,000 miles south of where we were. She told us she was working her way north, hoping to get to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to go into Europe. In the face of labor shortages all over Europe, many Africans are emigrating to Europe hoping to get work, which they usually do.
Unfortunately, the Europeans have not greeted the Africans with open arms. The Spanish navy patrols the Strait of Gibraltar each night looking for boats carrying illegal immigrants. When we were in Southern Spain, we saw anti-immigrant riots against the Muslims coming from Africa to work in the fields and orchards. All over Europe, from France to Belgium to Denmark, major anti-immigrant movements are under foot. Heider, the new leader in Austria, has based much of his political platform around keeping the immigrants out.
In reality, the Europeans could use the help. Europe has an enormous demographic problem of low-birth rates. Just the opposite is true in Africa, where birth rates are incredibly high. (Unfortunately, many of the countries also have high infant-mortality rates).
We should remember the close ties many African nations have had with Europe, and France in particular, over the centuries. Many of the nations in Western Africa were French colonies until the 1950s and 1960s, when they gained their independence. The French influence is visible everywhere: expatriates run patisseries and restaurants, and French is the official language of Senegal and Mali. French military units remain in many of the major cities and villages.
Even the currency has French ties. The Central African Franc, or CFA as it is called, is the common currency among 12 of the countries of Western Africa. That's been tremendously helpful since we don't have to constantly change money from one nation to the next. This common currency is also a tremendous boon for the countries themselves since it helps ease trade. It also means there is only one central bank instead of 12. In many ways, the arrangement resembles the model the Europeans are trying to build with the Euro. The big difference is these African nations are actually doing it. I am not optimistic the Euro will succeed because of flaws in the plan, but the CFA could give you reason to believe it might work.
Of course, the CFA dhas its own set of problems, some of which are actually related to the Euro. The CFA, after all, is not a free-standing currency but in fact is tied to the French franc. If it wasn't linked to the franc, the currency would have little value and there would have been years of devaluations in the past. With the creation of single monetary currency in Europe, the French Franc is now tied to the Euro, which means the CFA is really tied to it as well. That may have hurt these countries competitively, but it has insured currency stability which should pay off in the long run.
Technological progress also moves very slowly in Africa. When I was here in 1991, I often heard that more half the people in the world had never heard a dial tone. Although I still hear the that statistic, I don't think it's true anymore. While telephones are not in every home, telephone centers have proliferated significantly in and around the cities and villages. People can use these to call overseas or to call other villages. If I wanted to call a friend in another town, I would simply call the telephone center in his village. The person working the center would then go get my friend and have him call me back at my telephone center. The system is not perfect but it works just fine. Of course, you'll only find the Internet in the major cities and capitals. Still, it's here, even if it has a long way to go.
For now, these countries offer little in terms of investments. Beyond Morocco and its stock market and phosphate market, the major exports are cotton and ground nuts. My feeling is there are better investments for entrepreneurs willing to come here and start businesses. Someone interested in travel, for instance, could start tours of the Sahara just as they have safaris in Kenya. The desert is a beautiful and magical place and a tour which took visitors into the desert, riding on camels and visiting oases, would be wonderful. In a way, you have the best of worlds in a country like Mauritania, with the vastness of the desert poised against the Atlantic. Amazing old villages and mosques are littered throughout the desert, much like the old ghost towns of the Western U.S. Although not adventure for the faint of heart, it certainly could be big business. Mauritania has recently begun opening to the outside world and has even decided to promote tourism so it is early in the game.
Mauritania is opening up in other ways as well. It was one of the few countries to support Iraq in the war. But in a message I read as loud and clear, Mauritania suddenly recognized Israel last November. A high-level Israeli parliamentary delegation was on the way while we were there. The cynic in me says this may just be a way to make up with the U.S. and get aid again, but it also makes the point that change is coming.
Entrepreneurs might also consider telecommunications in this area. Very few people use cell phones here despite the proliferation of the wireless market around the world. No company is about to come in here and lay down land lines for these people so I suspect the cell-phone industry could do huge business in the populated parts of Africa.
Of course, a major deterrent to progress is the heat, particularly in the desert regions. In Kita, a city in Mali, the temperature was close to 110 degrees day after day. At night, it dropped only into the 90s at the coolest. It's the kind of heat that saps you of your energy and desire to do anything. And it's not even summer yet!
Ultimately, Africa's ability to become an investment capital for the world will depend as much on changing the way people perceive the vast continent as much as it will on exploiting its wealth of natural resources. Some people still view it as backward and oppressive. We'd heard, for instance, that Mauritania was a place where you could still actually buy a slave. (Slavery, of course, is illegal but we all know the law doesn't always dictate what goes on.) We looked and looked for slaves and even approached the black market to see if a slave market actually existed, but we found none. My guess is the slavery is less a reality than a mindset of many of the people who can't leave or feel stuck there. That perception must change if these African nations are to really stand on their own. By the way, if I am wrong and there are real slaves in Mauritania, the problem is easily solved. A world body could just buy up all the slaves for $50-100 million and free them. Problem solved.
Africa is changing. Democratic elections are producing new leaders who are working hard to help businesses cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that has bogged them down in the past. In Bamako, the capital of Mali, we saw a billboard encouraging business people to invest in Mali. Government leaders promised to make it as easy as possible. Of course, the same day we saw our video person arrested for filming the vegetable market. That's unfortunately the nature of progress on this beautiful and exciting continent: always two steps forward and one step back.
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