Thursday, 27 January 2011

TIA: This is Africa

As my more avid readers are probably aware, I am in deepest, darkest Africa, specifically the East. It is not my first time. All told by my next return I will have spent the best part of 4 months here, predominantly with work. Some elements of this continent are fantastic. It is up there for vistas, in general I find the people to be very friendly, and the weather certainly puts London in the shade. However, it is not all roses down here. What could be wrong, you might ask in a land where you can watch the red sun casting the last rays of the day across a verdant savannah, teaming with incredible wildlife? And all this wearing shorts and a slight sunburn, sipping a cool beer putting you in mind of Harry Flashman's era whilst most of your compatriots are complaining about the cold, wet weather or the latest tube strike?

Well now I put it like that I feel perhaps this isn't an entirely warranted rant, but for all Africa's relative advantages, there is an absolute that I feel needs dealing with. I am not going to rant about the Heath Robinson infrastructure, the binary-temperatured showers or the dust. The dust, the dust. Nope, I guess it all adds to the charm - if you wanted to avoid all that there is always Slough. Their roads are fine, I hear. No, what has always nagged at me about my stays here is one thing. It takes a moment to lose and a lifetime to gain. I am talking about trust.

Now before I launch into the meat of all this, take it for what it is. I have not been to every country in Africa, but it would not take a wild leap to suggest the problem to which I am alluding also permeates many other nations of equally limited economic might, African or otherwise. So, you may call my points generalisations, but so prevalent have I seen them in my not inconsiderable time here, and confirmed by many of the people I have travelled with, I think them fair in at least the most local sense of the East African nation I am currently in, and perhaps further afield.

I am probably no different from the next man in not liking being taken for a ride. The one thing that exercises me the most out here is the feeling that you are being ripped off. Now whilst the amounts you are talking about are often relatively small for a Westerner, the all-pervasive nature of the big rip-off leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. I can't help feeling like the golden goose. Falling foul (sorry) of that fable I think is one of the great issues with Africa.

I see short-termism in the actions of so many out here. Prices have a very obvious Western or local tag, and the variation can run into the hundreds of percents. Prices of drinks in the same bar on the same night will often vary with what they reckon they can get away with, and quite often the cash doesn't quite make it to the till. Giving change is often just an option, and it tests all your Englishness to mutter an embarrassed request for the right change, perhaps, please? It all seems to me to be part of an economic plan that must be "we don't know how long you'll be here, or whether you'll come again, so we'd better sting you good the first time."

As an example I played golf with a couple of friends today on our day off. The escalatory nature of the pricing is not confined to Africa - it is very much the Ryanair way. Golf? 1000 blatts. But don't forget the club hire. Or the caddie. Or the balls. Now the final price was still fine, but I rather hear prices delivered as a solid stab of pain than as death by a thousand tiny cuts. It was however, the amusing golf ball calculator that typified my sentiments on the place. You had to guess at the start how many balls you might need and then essentially rent them - you weren't buying them because they took them all back at the end. But buy too few and develop a hook and you'll just be walking the back nine. So you overcompensate and end up renting balls that never left the bag (I was uncharacteristically accurate off the tee today). Now if I just had to pay for lost balls I would understand (it's how the real world works), but instead you paid for something you never got. It left you feeling a little put out even though the round was relatively inexpensive. Regardless of it still being only a couple of pounds here or there, the principle still applies. The problem is, when you see it all around you, you lose trust in the system. Once that is gone, it is very hard to repair, and you begin to assume you are never getting a straight deal.

I wonder if it doesn't spread from the top, down. Countless times in the past, and unfortunately in the present, you see African countries brought to their knees as leader after leader moves into power only to desert the people he supposedly championed in favour of lining his pockets. Now this is again not restricted to this continent, but it is perhaps at its most prolific here.

We know it matters to me on a point of principle, but why does this matter to the country or continent? I think it is because from the outside corruption is viewed as the norm here. It is the feeling that everyone is on the take. Now that certainly isn't true - there are undoubtedly straight people here, but there are enough bad apples to tar the whole applecart (terrible mixed metaphor). The wider problem though, is that I don't believe the issue of trust will just cost them the tourist here and there who will not return. It is that until Africa can lose the image of corruption, I feel real investment in its future is unlikely, so dependent as investment is on trust. In that way, I believe this fault is perhaps the biggest barrier to development as a continent. So, for the time being, the only people playing the long game here are the countries (like China) or major corporations who bring their business to the country but solely to their own operations, exploiting the natural resources and withdrawing most of the resulting funds before you can say "investment in the community." For my money, if Africa wishes to join the developed world, they must learn the value of telling it straight.

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