Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lessons from Africa

I started writing this post sometime in August towards the end of my vacation in Tanzania. But somehow, I forgot about it and it was only a couple of days back I happened to open and read the half completed article on my computer. I seemed to be in a writing mood a few hours back and, here’s a new blog post.

I grew up in Tanzania, a country on the east coast of Africa. It was my home for most of my childhood; but I never bothered then, to know more about its political and economic history, let alone that of other countries in Africa. Maybe I was too young. Maybe I could hardly have been bothered by such weighty issues. But, more importantly, I had no easy access to the fourth estate to learn about the latest developments outside my own protected setting.

I was oblivious to every political and economic development or stagnation that happened around me. I missed the Rwandan genocide. I missed the Al-Qaeda bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. I hadn’t even heard of blood diamonds. I was too young to know about the significance of apartheid and of Nelson Mandela’s heroic role in its abolition. I hardly noticed the bad roads, the lack of water and the unrelenting power cuts. But I enjoyed cricket and soccer with my friends, the cartoons and of course the safaris. I was fascinated by the Masai Culture in East Africa and found their tribal dances mesmerizing to watch. I enjoyed my stay there with my friends and had lots of fun.

In hindsight, I guess that was a good thing. If that was the internet age and I had access to different articles on Africa, particularly in the western media, I too would have gained the impression that Africa is a failed continent that requires outsiders to save it, in spite of everything seeming so hunky-dory from my perch. After all, I was at a highly impressionable age then and any opinion that I formed would have stuck with me forever. So as I shifted back to India for my high school I only carried good memories about Africa in general.

Then, the world changed. Access to internet became more of a rule than an exception. I started, casually, reading about the political history of the continent, about Idi Amin and Mugabe, about the mass genocide in Rwanda and I was left wondering if my soft spot for the continent was misplaced. Then in early 2010 I found many articles about the up coming Rwandan elections and through the articles and the various comments following it, the general perception that one could gather was that Rwanda was a failed democracy, not very much unlike Idi Amin’s Uganda and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. It seemed that the incumbent President and his party were politically maneuvering to disbar candidates from opposition parties for the election. This was most disheartening considering that during my recent visit to the country I was most impressed by its development post-1994. That experience coupled with my soft spot for Africa had made me believe that African countries can develop by it’s own merit. Now, that belief was wavering.

Then, sometime in August 2010, a week or so after the Rwandan general elections (no surprises that Paul Kagame was re-elected by a huge margin), I happened to visit my relatives in the country for a few days and had reasonably lengthy conversations, albeit one sided, with my cousin about the ground realities in the country as opposed to the news doing rounds outside. That’s when an opinion started taking seed inside me, something that does not really hold the west in good stead in my mind and of course something that satiates my soft spot for Africa.

I am not going into the details of the conversation I had (to be honest I don’t really remember), but in essence it centered around how the ‘disbarred’ candidate that the western media was so ostentatiously flaunting was inherently playing ethnic politics in the pre-election campaign which in my opinion is detrimental to the interests of any country. (Just to clarify, the fact that this candidate could not contest the 2010 elections, supposedly, has nothing to do with the campaign; but the party just did not meet the deadline to submit election papers. Of course this can be interpreted in multiple ways and I am no expert about the politics of Africa and it would be pretentious on my part to delve into this further).

So, here is my only lesson from my latest visit to the continent during which unfortunately I could go on no safaris and could not enjoy the visual treat that Africa is.

Always take reports in the western media about Africa with a pinch of salt. The stereotype about the place is that of a failed continent that requires outsiders to save it. When any country breaks away from the norm and tries to grow by its own merit, the media prefers to crush it down, to find something to denigrate the success of Africa, whatever little it may have had.