Saturday, December 16, 2006


I have one more blog inspired by my recent trip to Ghana. This one may not so much be about my trip as it will be rumination on the title subject of this blog. I write as someone with more than a passing interest in Africa. After all, I spent my childhood there, living in then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) from age 2 to 8, and next in then Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) from age 9 to 15. Even though I left Africa a long time ago (in my life span), I still actively absorb information about things African. I continue to read news stories, particularly from BBC News, I read literature written by various African writers, and I think about the challenges and dilemmas of Africa a whole lot.

Why is this? That is something I ponder. Is it because the best scientific knowledge has established that humanity first emerged in Africa—so we can all rightly talk about Mother Africa? Or is it because as an American, I am acutely aware of one of our greatest historical challenges, slavery? Some thinkers have referred to slavery as America’s original sin—a most telling analogy in that from this sin derives the many consequences we have wrestled with nationally. And, of course, the slaves who were so horrifically ripped away from their homes were Africans, many of them from West Africa precisely where Ghana is.

One of the great mysteries is that while many countries in the world are advancing and developing, so many countries in Africa lag. Several years ago I saw portions of a series on Africa that was being aired on PBS. I have looked to find what it was called, unsuccessfully. So, I don’t remember the name of the expert who posited this theory, but he suggested that one of the reasons that Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, historically did so little advance planning was related to climate. With much of the continent experiencing a continuously warm climate, with food sources naturally growing and simply there for the taking, there was little need to build shelter, to fashion extensive warm clothing, to harvest and store crops to supply a family or clan through harsh winter months. It is an interesting theory. Some similar suggestions were explored in the Jared Diamond book,
Gun, Germs and Steel. Maybe these theories help explain the apparent chaotic approach to life one sees even today in parts of Africa.

Of course, we cannot dismiss the effects of colonialism. Africa represented many things as human history rolled on. During the age of explorers, in the 15th and 16th centuries, ships sailed around the tip of Africa and naturally established refueling and restocking outposts there. In the mid-17th century slavery, which may have long pre-existed, expanded. And for a whole host of reasons that have been explained by various historians, Africa became the source of slaves. Africans sold other Africans, trading first with Arab traders, and then to European slave traders who transported them to the so-called New World. By the 19th century Europe was busy dividing up parts of the world, and focused especially on Africa. Some of the most egregious atrocities were committed in what was called the Belgium Congo, which was really King Leopold II’s colony. This subject has been richly detailed in the fine book
King Leopold’s Ghost.

There was neither rhyme nor reason as to which European country established dominance over which part of Africa. Some of the allotments were determined by the spoils of war. After World War I, the Allies quite literally sat around and chopped up the possessions of the former Axis powers, giving pieces of Africa that had been under German control to various entities. Thus was
Rwanda handed from German control over to Belgium control. Sadly, the absurd division of native groups continued there, separating Tutsis from Hutus based in part on which group looked more European! The Tutsis were singled out for further education, for administrative position, for advancement while the Hutus were left behind. With these terrible seeds was sown the eventual genocide that played out in Rwanda during 100 days in 1994 during which almost one million Rwandans were killed by their countrymen.

Perhaps this mélange is what contributes to the chaotic state of far too many African countries today. There are African leaders who had great visions for Africa.
Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana was such a man. Despite his vision for a unified Africa, he was overthrown in a coup in 1966 and was banned from Ghana. Patrice Lumumba in the Congo was another leader who, though democratically elected, was arrested by rivals and eventually murdered. Even today his death prompts various theories as to who really ordered his death.

One of the great African leaders, who is still living, is
Nelson Mandela. As I watched the evolution of South Africa from a country with a repressive white dominated government to one under eventual democratically elected black rule, I would have been willing to wager that the transition would never be managed without significant bloodshed. I had read Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and fully expected that fictional work to turn out to be prophetic. Happily, and to my great surprise, it was not. Through the sheer force of his moral stature, Nelson Mandela helped his country do what many other African countries have struggled to do—move from a colonial dominated country to a self-governing relatively problem free nation.

Back to Ghana. I do not know enough about the current status of Ghana to comment at all on its politics. Of course, I have read a great deal about the country in preparation for visiting there, but really know no more than what I have read. One of the greatest assets that Ghana seems to have is its people—they were welcoming, they were self-assured, they were almost relentlessly cheerful. Yes, there were aspects about the Ghanaian people that show problems. My daughter can speak much more authoritatively to this than I can, since she lived there for a while and experienced first-hand great frustrations. She pointed out the on-the-spot napping tendency that I wrote about in a prior blog. She also has written in her own blog about the mysterious tendency to do little advance planning. For example, when she and a friend took buses between cities in Ghana, the buses never ran on time—rather they waited until the bus was full before departing, even if that wait was as long as the trip to be taken.

One final story that doesn’t really illustrate any of what I have written, but certainly is not an example of the wonders of Ghana. One evening, as my daughter, a friend of hers, and I headed out for dinner, as usual we walked from the hotel up to the main road to get a taxi. Shortly, a taxi stopped, and as my daughter was negotiating destination and price, a young Ghanaian man in a security guard uniform, fully armed with a semi-automatic rifle, stepped up and spoke quickly to the taxi driver and waved him off. We were a bit nonplussed, but proceeded to hail another taxi. This time, the armed guard simply stepped up, and rode off in “our” taxi. Even more puzzled, we tried a third time. Since the guard had ridden away, we successfully negotiated destination and price, and had actually gotten in the taxi, when the guard suddenly returned. He climbed into the back of the taxi and motioned, partly with his rifle, all three of us out. All this while, he had not said anything to us. By now, my daughter and her friend were outraged. What was going on? So we walked back down to the hotel and complained to the doormen staff. Oh, they said, he is doing that for your protection. Some hotel guests were robbed by a taxi so we are not allowing anyone to take a taxi until we get the number of the car. (!) Why not tell us that before we walked up to the road in the first place? Why not explain that as we talked with the first driver? Why “threaten” or intimidate the hotel guests when presumably it is the taxi drivers who are the concern? Why indeed all of these questions? Oh Africa! Some things simply defy explanation.

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