Thursday, March 18, 2010

Half-time Synopsis

A few years ago I started to read "Dark Star Safari" by Paul Theroux. I put the book down right about when he got to Nairobi because I was bored by how unfairly negative I thought he was being about Africa. My ignorance formed my unrealistic opinion. I stand corrected and look forward to re-reading his book.

So the tricky question is: is Africa really in dire straits? Are African people living unhappy lives?

From my point of view, Africa is an amazingly beautiful place, but the lives of its people look grim as does the future of its beautiful land. But am I making that assesment based probably on the sense of civility, order and hygiene expected in the West? Maybe it's not fair to make judgement based on my experience as a fleeting bike-through tourist.

One Kenyan travel book I read recently suggested not giving anything to the people I meet along the way. This prompted a discussion on whether hand-outs by past travellers may be the reason why some people along the road, especially in Ethiopia, have been so aggressive. It certainly makes sense. If someone receives some money, or a pen, or a book, or some food or anything from a random tourist, I would imagine that their expectations would be set accordingly. If this might be true on this scale, is it the case on a much bigger scale such as international aid in all its different forms and sizes?

Yesterday I met someone who had flown in to visit a TDAer for a couple of days. He had a black eye around which were set of teeth marks, compliments of one of 4 people who mugged him soon after his arrival in Nairobbery.

An hour later another TDAer told me how earlier that day he and a few others were in a taxi van when the driver stopped, ushered out all of the locals, and aggressively demanded more money from the TDAers, while holding the to door to the taxi closed. They managed to get out, with a bit of force and not getting back the fare they had already paid.

These 2 stories left a bitter taste in my mouth yesterday and added to my negativity, and also reminded me to keep up my guard, which I think I had begun to let down as I have become more comfortable in Africa.

I suspect that my blog has refected my negativity towards the people of Africa, but in the same way that one good shot in my usual poor golf game keeps me coming back, I have met a few people along the way who remind me that life might be good in Africa, and that the future may be bright after all. Africa is a very beautiful place; it emits a mysterious magnetism that is hard to resist even after being stoned - that's with rocks not drugs.

Since I suggest that aid may not be helpful for Africa, you may question the money I am raising for SELF. SELF is an organization that doesnt simply give solar energy to those in need. SELF requires that those who receive their help play a part in the design and installation. In some cases SELF may even ask that the recipients pay for the solar panels through micro-financing. I still beleive as I did before I started this tour that aid is more constructive when it is earned, or the recipient is accepts it with good intention and a sense of accountability. I believe that SELF offers that kind of aid, and is model of how others should help.

The rest of the world should help by letting the Africans define their own lives and shape their own future's. Aid is good, but countries that give should be careful the reason for giving is not primarily self-interest. Ubuntu is global.


  1. Tim- The problem Africa faces is much deeper than that. I understand your assessment is limited to your short visit and time and place constraints to express your views. Almost all head of states are corrupt. What % of donation really hits its target? In some cases the west has a vested interest in keeping some rouge leaders. You also forgot to mention the overpopulation problem. This is very evident especially in Ethiopia. A good portion of the country is inaccessible and is NOT governed by the central govt. I left Ethiopia many, many moons ago (1980). The population back then was 26M. Now it stands at 75M after the separation of Eritrea. Since then how many schools, hospitals, roads, infrastructures have been built. Not many. Not proportional to population growth. Kenya and Tanzania, on the other hand are investing on education heavily. But they too have their share of problems in the form of religion and terrorist influences.

  2. I find it pretty interesting that of the two dozen or so people I've asked in Kenya variations of the question 'what's the biggest problem in Africa?' or 'why do you think the poverty is so seemingly total?' that they answer with one word - "CORRUPTION." These are smart, thinking people who have spent many hours considering their situation. It's been very illuminating to hear so much agreement(without prompting) that all the other almost-cliche' problems - AIDS, education, poverty - stem directly from the greed of the continent's 'leaders'.

    East Africa is a stunningly beautiful place - outside the cities. The poverty outside the cities is obvious and unavoidable, but nearly everywhere you look are equally obvious signs of grace and dignity in how people live; small villages where family, community, work & children are the prevailing values. No money, much pride.

    Whatever the cause(s), Dar Es Salaam, Nairobi & Mombasa are soul-crushing places. The slums are indescribable, the prevailing mood resignation. If you have a minute GOOGLE 'Kibera' - a neighborhood in Nairobi. Wiki 'flying toilets.'

    Solutions are difficult to concieve in such desperation.

  3. Haile Selassie was a Billioner, while his country people were dying of HUNGER.
    Mobuto Se Se Seko was a Billioner.
    A lot of African countries have natural resources tapped and untapped.
    Angola should not have any problem. It has oil and diamonds.etc
    When African leaders lose power almost always do not live in their country. For this they must embezzle tons of cash. For now what the west is doing is 'pour in help" far away from the famous adage of " if you teach a person how to fish,,,,"
    If you guys have time compare each countries military spending vs education and health combined. You will be surprised.