In January 2011, the people of southern Sudan are to vote in a referendum whether or not they want a separate country of their own or remain united to the North as one country, now known as Sudan. Will this be the last country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence, exactly 55 years after its first “independence” from a colonial power? For most southern Sudanese, the Khartoum government has treated them as colonial subjects, or worse: abducted into slavery, the region left undeveloped, its resources extracted with little of the profits returning to the South; fierce and cruel civil wars; ensuring the main tribes are kept disunited, little say in power-sharing, massive flight of refugees, and human rights violations.
This year, 2010, about 20 African countries –most of them former French colonies, and Somalia- celebrate their 50th independence anniversary. Within the next three years much of Anglophone Africa would follow suit, with the notable exception of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which declared its own kind of independence, UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) from Britain, under the White rule of Ian Smith, and the country called itself Rhodesia, until Robert Mugabe took over in 1980. South Africa was the last with a majority Black population to become independent in 1994 with Nelson Mandela as president, holding out the hand of reconciliation to its sizeable, powerful and educated White minority.
What did the fifty or so years of colonial rule leave behind? The “black legend” of many historians and novelists tells us: the Bible came with the gun and the business-man. Not quite correct. The gun had already arrived, with the Arab slave-traders; the businessmen had operated from coastal ports for several centuries. The greatest contribution of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century was that of the missionary, who brought Catholicism to the Latin-colonised countries, and to large pockets of eastern and southern Anglophone Africa. With the Bible, which they carefully translated into the vernacular languages, together with the liturgy, the missionaries established the “mission compound” consisting of church, convent, schools and hospital. Many years later, the Catholic schools and hospitals offer today the best service, and are preferred by many non-Catholics and Muslims. It is worth remembering what Pope Benedict XVI has said: that, rather than help spread HIV/AIDS, the Catholic Church is at the forefront of treating the victims and caring for them.
Evangelisation, education and health-care have helped African countries stand on their own feet by preparing a class of future rulers. Independence also brought with it a feeling of relief and optimism, but a confusion of identity: the loyalty to one’s group, clan or community, it was thought, would be replaced by loyalty to one’s new “nation”; a nation which was being shared with former rivals, and whose boundaries had been arbitrarily decided by foreigners.
There was a feeling too among many people, especially the uneducated, of inferiority towards the White man; that it was impossible to catch up with their former rulers or administrators with their more advanced “wisdom” and technology. As thousands of young Africans have now been exposed to the world outside, and with the invention of the mobile phone and computer and a dynamic and energetic young generation –for whom the world has no limits- this has changed from one of inferiority to one of “let’s work together with them”, or even teach them something new. This is especially so in countries which have experienced peace and stability since Independence or in the last twenty years since the political and economic disruptions left by the end of the Cold War. This is the case of most of eastern and central Africa –on which this article is focused- including Rwanda and Burundi which are making bold efforts to forget their genocidal past.
These disruptions introduced the “multi-party” system of government, pushed by the Western democracies. In Africa this type of democracy has not gelled, as witness the sudden flare-up of violence and ethnic tensions in politically-conscious Kenya three years ago. In some other countries Western-style democracy is held back by one-man rule in its various forms: a leader comes to power and, despite promising “free and fair” elections in five years time, changes the constitution, surrounds himself with time-serving advisers, most of whom become entangled in corruption and scandals, so that everyone can blackmail everyone else. It’s therefore in the interest of such a clique to stay in power, by whatever means. But there are already signs that the voters realize this and will sooner or later enforce a change to a situation of people-based power.
While patronage is power in Africa –what matters is who you know, and who can give you a push up the ladder; favour calls for a return favour. Greed and corruption are rampant in most of Africa, as in practically every country of the world. They happen to be more overt and evident here, where people rely upon rumour, word of mouth and the local tabloid press, all received and passed on with a disarming openness, simplicity and humour, rather than government statements to discover the truth.
The post-Cold War disruptions also produced inventiveness in what is called the “informal sector”: hand-outs stopped coming, economies suffered, people were retrenched. But families had to survive: small-time entrepreneurs sprouted up everywhere; second-hand or not up-to-standard new clothing and other goods came from overseas, for example. Now, many of these same entrepreneurs fly to Dubai, Bangkok or Guangzhou to order the goods and arrange their shipping back to Mombasa. Public taxis replaced municipal buses.
Anyone with a little manual skill turned it into making stoves, utensils and other basic equipment for the average home in the shanty towns surrounding or within the capital city. Suddenly the streets of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, and the other towns were swarming with bicycle taxis, then motor-bike taxis, the famous “boda-bodas”, giving employment to thousands of young men. Young men and women quickly learned how to style hair and set up salons; keeping a trim beard and scalp is a priority for men, as is a fashionable Western style for women.
It was common in many countries under colonial rule for the ‘natives”, the local people, to be restricted to the “reserves”. Only those who worked for the White population –servants, gardeners, messengers, a few with basic clerical knowledge- were allowed to live in the native quarters on the edge of the city. This changed immediately the colonial powers had lowered their flag and left, and has continued to this day; in fact, the pace of urbanization is possibly faster in Africa than anywhere else.
The reasons are: land disputes, uncertainty of ownership and lack of title deeds, the demand for education and the “better life” with all the modern conveniences, the delay in payments to farmers, and the emphasis on a “white-collared” job, achievable, it is thought, only by means of a university education. In Nairobi, for example, thousands of young people are holding down a full-time job, attending university in the evenings for a second or third degree, all at the same time, and studying and sleeping when they can. Many young Rwandans and Ugandans are starting to feel the same pressure to get qualified. Forty years ago Kenya had one university; now there are dozens scattered all over the country, accepting only the best students. The majority who obtain entrance requirements cannot find a place; and the same is true for the whole of the region.
This mass internal migration has created social problems. The vast majority of city-dwellers in Africa live in the shanty-towns, unemployed or under-employed because unable to complete their studies owing to inability to pay fees. Although primary education, and in some countries, secondary education is now “free”, quality education, like quality health-care, is still “for sale”. The worst social problems stem from the miserable sanitary conditions of the shanty towns and the under-employment of young males who, unless they are well brought up and have initiative, can easily fall into crime. Besides, they have “nothing to lose” – in prison at least you have somewhere to sleep and food to eat.
The promiscuity of a large family all living in the same one room, perhaps with relatives from the country-side whom tradition forbids to be turned away, contributes to promiscuous behaviour, and the promotion and easy availability of condoms in some places encourages this, rather than stems it. Thus AIDS is spread, not contained.
All African countries have three social classes: the very few extremely wealthy, a small struggling middle class, and everyone else. The inequalities are there for anyone to see on the drive from the airport to the capital. Slums crop up anywhere, even next to blocks of luxury flats, since town-planners are few, and local regulations are not implemented.
Until recently and until the establishment of local private universities, middle-class children would emigrate to the United States, Britain or India to further their studies. Now that the issuance of work and travel visas has become stricter –fears of terrorism, etc.- fewer students are able to follow that route.
Nevertheless, the Western world still has its attraction for young Africans. Hollywood movies, and now local movies, especially in Uganda and Nigeria, Afro-American music, styles of clothing and behaviour, but without some of the gross language – Africans have a sense of tact and decency that Western secular culture has not pushed out.
Quietly and effectively, however, it is China that is making the biggest impact in infrastructure: building huge trunk roads, ports, airstrips, sports stadia, public buildings. China needs Africa’s resources, urgently, especially oil, minerals and wood: natural resources go out from Africa’s ports, and thousands of containers arrive from South-East Asia with everything imaginable, from construction equipment and furniture to sweets and toys, at a cheaper price than anything the Western countries can sell at.
Fewer places in Africa now correspond to the Africa stereotype: genocide, famine, civil wars, etc., but some areas will take time to change. All the pastoralist communities, particularly in the dry areas of eastern and north-eastern Africa still consider all the cattle in the world belong to them; and the strife in Somalia seems far from reaching a permanent solution. But now that the sub-Saharan section of the continent is largely at peace, one can expect rapid development in all sectors, thanks to a huge, growing young population.
Martyn Drakard is Spero's correspondent in Africa.