20 March 2000 - 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 have 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 to me in his language but there was no point. Neither of us had any idea what the other one was saying. He just kept going and eventually was out of sight. There was little to no damage done to my car. In fact, the experience left me more surprised and amused than upset.

On some level, though, this experience kind of summed up what we had 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 seems apparent everywhere we go. There are many towns without electricity; many hotels have only one phone. Still, a new modern world is creeping up on Africa. The Internet is starting to show it’s presence. Democracy is starting to win over in kingdoms once run by dictators and socialists.

Life in Africa is a play of extremes. Everyday you experience thrilling new environments and situations, while at the same time often undergo 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 there’s a flip side to such beauty: We’ve encountered colossal traffic accidents where horribly overloaded 18 wheelers capsize across the roads strewing peanuts or beer everywhere, blocking the road for miles. We’ve been repeatedly stopped for routine checks 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 that one wrong move and we’ll end up sick or dead. Africa is all about a clash of extremes, between the best and the worst, between the old ways and the new ways.

This clash resonates in all elements of the culture, from politics to economics to social situations, to the natural environment. The result of such a clash, though, is often change. As we’ve traveled through Morocco, Western Sahara, Senegal, the Gambia, Mauritania, and Mali, we’ve seen signs that things are changing, 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 all indications are that a new Africa is starting to take 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. Their 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 that the king of Morocco died last year and his son, King Mohammed, took over as leader of the country. 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 a enormous collection of top-of-the-line Mercedes—and building palaces for himself all over the country.

His son, the new leader of Morocco, is a younger, more worldly man. All indications are that he wants to bring change to his country. He has already dismissed the man who ran the secret police. He has eased curbs on freedom of speech and has promised to boost literacy. He is even talking about giving women more rights.

While these are all 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 that there will be a backlash coming from all the years of difficulty inflicted on the general population. It’s the same fate that met Russia and Mexico: when you have a society that has been held closed with a tight lid for decades and then you try to open it up, things tend to get very messy before they get better.

This clash between old ways and new ways was evident even as we passed through 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 their right 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 have 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 they have not set the referendum. My guess is that if the referendum doesn’t happen soon, you’ll see a war brew up here pretty quickly. 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.

Such is the pace of change in Africa—a slow and lugubrious process which will take years to develop fully. Paige and I have experienced much of the old corruption as we have driven through the Western part of Africa. We have been stopped repeatedly by policemen and patrol agents, looking for bribes. In our brightly colored Mercedes we certainly stand out and I wouldn’t be surprised if they radio ahead to one another to let them know we are coming.
Once in Dakar, we were stopped three times within 500 meters.

Typically, they 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 that there would be 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 best if we waited to see what happened. I told Paige that the best thing would be if Diouf were to concede, but you never see that happen in Africa.

To my astonishment, it happened. Diouf conceded before all of the votes were even tallied. Since then, there has been a relatively peaceful change of government. I’ll repeat it: That’s something that just did not happen often in old Africa. The fact that it did tells me that even the old order of leadership in this continent is aware that things are moving in a new direction, towards change and growth. Diouf will not be remembered for anything he did to help the country of Senegal; but he’ll be remembered for standing down and preventing a violent and bloody outbreak in the country.

It’s clear to me that the people of this vast continent want change as well. We were eating in an African restaurant in Mauritania (that was actually owned by Koreans!) and we needed someone to help us translate. The owners brought out an African woman who was working as a dishwasher. To our surprise, she spoke perfect English. We learned quickly that she was from Ghana, a country over a thousand miles south of where we were at the time. I asked her what she was doing there and we discovered that 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. If they get there, they usually can find work.

Unfortunately, the Europeans have not been greeting 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, there were 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, there are major anti-immigrant movements under foot. Heider, the new leader in Austria, has based much of his political platform around keeping the immigrants out of Europe.

The reality is that the Europeans could use the help. There is an enormous demographic problem of low-birth rates in Europe, as well as Asia. Just the opposite is true in Africa, where birth rates are incredibly high. (Unfortunately, many of the countries also have high infant mortality rates).

It’s important to remember the close ties that many of these African nations have had to Europe and France in particular over the centuries. Many of the Western nations were French colonies until the1950s and 1960s, when they gained their independence. The influence of the French is visible everywhere: there are expatriates running patisseries and restaurants; French is the official language of Senegal and Mali. There are French military units 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 for us since we don’t have to constantly change money as we move from one nation to the next. This common currency is also a tremendous boon for the countries themselves as well since it helps ease trade. It also means that there is only one central bank instead of twelve. In many ways, it resembles the model the Europeans are trying to build with the Euro. The big difference is that down here in Africa they 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, that’s not to say the CFA doesn’t have it’s own set of problems. In fact, these problems are actually related to the Euro. The CFA, after all, is not a freestanding currency but in fact is tied to the French franc. If it wasn’t linked to the franc, there wouldn’t be much value to the currency at all and there would have been years of devaluations in the past. The problem is that 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. I think that has hurt these countries competitively but has insured currency stability which should help in the long run.

In terms of technological progress, things move very slowly in Africa. When I was here last time in 1991, there was a statistic bandied about that over half the people in the world had never heard a dial tone. You still hear that statistic talked about but I just don’t think it’s true anymore. While there certainly are not telephones in every home, there has been a major proliferation of telephone centers in and around the cities and villages. People can use these to call overseas or even to call one another in other villages. If I wanted to call a friend in another town, I would simply call the other 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. It’s not a perfect system, but it works just fine. Of course, you’ll only find the Internet in the major cities and capitals. Still, it’s presence is here and it has a long way to go.

In terms of investments, there’s little to point to in these Western countries of Africa. Beyond Morocco and its stock market and phosphate market, the major exports are cotton and ground nuts. My feeling is that there are better investments for entrepreneurs willing to come over here and start businesses. Someone interested in travel, for instance, could start tours of the Sahara just as they have tours of safaris down 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 world’s in a country like Mauritania: there’s the vastness of the desert poised against the Atlantic. There are amazing old villages and mosques littered through out the desert that are simply fascinating, like the old ghost towns of our Western U.S. It’s not adventure for the faint of heart but 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 was one of the few countries to support Iraq in the war. 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. That this may just be a way to make up with the US and get aid again might be a cynical view, but it certainly 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 in Africa is the heat, particularly in the desert regions. We were in Kita, a city in Mali where it was close to 110 degrees day after day. At night, it dropped only into the 90’s 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 perceive as a 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 to no avail. We found none. My guess is that the slavery that is talked about is less a reality than a mindset of many of the people who can’t leave or feel stuck there. And it’s that kind of perception that will need to change before these African nations can really stand on their own. By the way, if I am wrong and there are real slaves in Mauritania, it would not take much to solve the problem. A world body could just buy up all the slaves for $50-100 million and free them. Problem solved.

It’s clear to us that Africa is changing. There are democratic elections and new leaders are working hard to cut to help businesses cut through the red tape and bureaucracy that has bogged them down in the past. We saw a billboard in Bamako, the capital of Mali encouraging business people to put their investments in Mali. They 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.

Africa: Most either love it or detest it within a day or 2. I am one who adores it. Life does not get any better than this: Village weddings with drums and dancing the likes of which I would not have believed possible. Driving along edge of the Sahara with the Atlantic Ocean splashing on our windshield as sand blows in from the desert. Camping with camel and goat nomads and drinking milk warm since it was just milked from the camel. The moon, stars, silence of the desert at night. Ice cold beer at the end of dusty days when temperatures rise to 112 F and never drop below 100 F. Colossal traffic accidents where horribly overloaded 18 wheelers somehow capsize across the roads strewing peanuts or beer or whatever everywhere and blocking the roads until impatient drivers make a track around the highway. Finding successful young entrepreneurs like the 35 year old who owns 10 immaculate bungalows with air conditioning that works, a restaurant with cold beer, and a staff that provides marvelous service—–all for virtually nothing. Never being asked for a bribe in Burkina Faso. Giant, ancient Baobab trees that legend says were thrown into the ground upside down by an angry god; my absolute favorite tree in all the world. Villages with scores of candles illuminating the various stalls at night. Kids throwing rocks into the trees to bring down the fruit. Bats darting down to the hotel swimming pool as night falls or swallows doing the same in mid afternoon. Spectacular meals in small local restaurants with whatever happens to be in season. Donkeys that never, ever show impatience or agitation. Dreams inspired by the anti-malaria drug Lariam. There is a price: Police in Dakar constantly stopping us for “Routine Check” and then asking for a cadeau. Endless Control Points along the highways where we must go into a hot shed beside the road and watch a policeman painfully write down the exact same information another one wrote down back down the road and that another one will write down further up the road. Corrupt and arrogant police in Mali who demand “Fines” for filming markets or delay us with endless lectures. Heat that tears at your nostrils until you have to breath through your mouth until your throat goes dry——But honest dry heat unlike the wretched humid heat of New York. The Hotel l’Auberge in Bobo-Dioulasso that claims to accept Visa, but then can’t get the machine to work. La Gazelle D’Or: the wildly expensive, “luxury” retreat in Morocco where service is hopeless. Fitful sleeping caused by the anti- malaria drug Lariam. There are prices to be paid for driving through Africa, but it does not get any better than this. Life is very pure in Africa in every way.