Reflecting on East Africa

This is a compilation of miscellaneous
reflections on my recent visit to East Africa.

Traveling through four countries of East Africa reminded me how magnificent, daunting, complex and wonderful is this region of the world. People in villages are welcoming and hospitable beyond belief. Poverty continues to erode quality of life, tragically and frighteningly. City life is challenging and sometimes scarey.

All that said, I return to the U.S. enthused about the potential for Africa and Africans; energized by the commitment and skills I have seen in my visits to four countries (Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya with conversations with people from Rwanda, southern Sudan, Burundi, Ivory Coast and Liberia).

Here are a few random thoughts in no particular order:

  • While people in the developed world are overwhelmed with media and a cascading flow of information, some people in Africa, namely, the poor and marginalized, are information-starved. They want information about how to improve their quality of life in practical, useful bites.
  • Many Africans are embarrassed by the corruption of their political leaders. This will, hopefully, lead to an atmosphere of accountability and transparency that will change the long-established culture of corruption that prevails in far too many governments on the continent.
  • The work ethic among some Africans is almost frightening. More than one African told me, “You don’t get paid for sleeping.” Another said, “Life is a race. The Japanese are running and the Americans are afraid they will get ahead. The Americans are running and they are afraid the Japanese will get ahead. We Africans aren’t in the race but we must run fast just to stay behind.” Therefore, many are working so hard they cut back on necessary sleep and program their lives for rest periods during the day. Surviving is so difficult some put in long, long hours and work at more than one job, especially in cities, to get ahead.
  • Someone along the way gave me this quote: Revolutionaries don’t make good presidents. Generally speaking, in the opinion of this individual, revolutionaries who have gone on to become presidents have not performed well in post-colonial Africa. I guess the skills to depose tyranny are not the same skills necessary to run a democracy.
  • In many cities it’s safer to run red lights than to stop and risk having your car high-jacked.
  • I was told inflation is 1000% in Zimbabwe and people refer to the currency, known as the Zim, as funny money. I don’t know enough about the inflation rate to confirm this but I do know that I took a taxi about twenty blocks in Harare and the fare was 3 million Zim. The government issued a one million Zim note while we were there. People must carry stacks of bills with them if they make major purchases. The US dollar is equivalent to 100,643 Zimbabwe dollars. Money received in the morning is worth less in the afternoon, so people have to adjust their daily schedules to anticipate purchases before it drops further. This is creating a sense of frustration and unease that is expressed by virtually everyone.
  • In three of the four countries I visited power outages are common and fuel to run generators is expensive, so people within the electric grid often do without power. This is a costly drain on daily affairs in a globally connected world. This unreliable infrastructure puts African nations at a great disadvantage in a globally connected world.
  • Even a routine taxi ride can be dangerous in rickety vans with bald tires. A teacher at Humble Place Village school riding in a taxi on a local highway was seriously injured and four others were killed when the taxi overturned and rolled several times one night. The cause was not determined while we were there, but I heard speculation that such accidents often result from a bald tire blowing out or the practice of drivers leap-frogging at high speeds from one stop to another to gather passengers before other drivers can get to the collecting points. The teacher lost an eye and sustained internal injuries in addition to her emotional trauma.
  • In South Africa the division between affluence and poverty is so stark it is almost surreal. Affluent neighborhoods give way to indescribable township poverty with almost no transition from one to the other. Ironically, many of these shantytowns have their own website. Khayelitsha Township, for example, where we visited with Bush Radio has not only a website, but a bed and breakfast in a shanty where visitors can get a taste of life in the township. For a good overview about how the townships in Cape Town were created through forced removal of Black residents from downtown, see the history section of the township’s website.
  • The U.S. remains a hope for many, however, the image of the U.S. has suffered on the continent as a result of the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. One African told me, “After 9/11 we were all with you. But then the U.S. said it was ‘us against them’ and we became ‘them.’ We wanted to come along but you didn’t bring us with you.”
  • A young generation is emerging with education and hopes for a better future coupled with a commitment to achieve it. I am in awe of young folks such as Peter Odengho who demonstrates daily commitment to the improvement of life among the poor. And some elders such as Zane Ibrahim are mentoring youth by developing a sense of commitment to social change. These people have the skills, commitment and fortitude to run the race. They need our helping hand in the form of encouragement, support, solidarity and financing. I’ve never had more reason for hope about Africa than I have found viewing firsthand the commitment of these people.

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