Faces of Africa

Back in May, prior to the Black Lives Matter marches, I felt that I needed to know more about politics in Africa, a part of the world I have not yet been to. Ironically, May is “Africa month,” a time to commemorate the continent. I came across a series on YouTube by CGTN (a Chinese network) called “Faces of Africa” where they profile the major leaders of Africa, most of whom helped liberate their countries from colonial powers. Each episode was unique and each leader a distinct personality. There were some whose names I knew very well, like Robert Mugabe, but others with whom I was less familiar. Some are still revered, whereas others are reviled.

Europeans might already be aware of the deep roots of colonialism in the African continent. For many of them, the presence of people from Africa and current-date immigrants is a reminder of their history. Indians have also had a presence in Africa for centuries, and Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer in South Africa. More recently, there are East and Southeast Asians, and an Indonesian South African recently told me that the recent Asian immigrants have a better social status than earlier ones, as they had come from business and often brought great wealth. There are indeed a number of whites who are African whites, as their families have lived there for centuries. This is not just in the country of South Africa, but elsewhere, especially in former colonial strongholds.

It is important to know that there is extreme class stratification throughout the African continent. Africa is full of natural resources and so there are very wealthy people who have profited from these commodities. There are also booming metropolises, such as Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg (“Joburg” to the locals), and more that are centers of trade, finance, manufacturing. There is also extreme political instability throughout the continent, extreme corruption, and a lack of infrastructure. This is understandable, for the landmass is enormous, and encompasses all types of geography, from deserts to plains to snow-capped mountains to jungles. There is tremendous diversity in the religions and languages, with the North and Maghreb being predominantly Muslim, and over 1500 languages spoken in six different language families.

Yet despite this diversity, the continent has suffered through so many similar situations. The legacies and tragedies of colonial powers were affecting Africa through the mid 20th century. Exploitation–both financial and human–was rampant all over. The profiles of the leaders shown in “Faces of Africa” often reflect a very similar pattern: a colonial power had long had a hold over the country, and then a courageous idealist rose up to rebel against the colonials, garnering popular support along the way, and then became the leader of the country. However, over time, this leader either ended up facing opposition and was somehow ousted, or this leader ended up becoming a dictator just as bad as the colonial rulers. Many of them were educated in the West, and just like Gandhi, ended up using this knowledge of history and politics and the law to turn out the Western powers. The degree to which each of these leaders chose to remain connected to the west, or to be pro-Africa, has varied. Their styles of governing also differed greatly. Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie was an internationalist and Emperor, grand in his portraits and lifestyle. Joseph Sankara, “Africa’s Che Guevara” from Burkina Faso was a left-wing revolutionary who opposed the IMF and lived very frugally to the end. Robert Mugabe, the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe who identified first with Marx and Lenin and then as a socialist, was a schoolteacher who rose to power to become one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, complete with a second wife who was known for her profligate spending.

These liberators are complex people who share many similarities but also have many differences. They raise greater questions: can one truly remain an idealist once they are in power? Will political coalitions and unity fragment once the common enemy of the colonizer is gone? Can a country that is part of the developing world subsist without aid from the developed world/IMF/World Bank? Can isolationism really help develop a country or will it hinder it? These are questions that have no easy answers and that have not yet been answered, issues that political scientists, historians, politicians, and those working in government confront even as we speak. One of the most pressing issues right now is debt forgiveness for Africa, and the Chinese have been involved as of late.

The African continent is rich in history and politics. While it is impossible to know everything about such a large area of the world, it’s important to inform oneself as best as when can. Even simply learning the geography and basic facts about the various countries is a good start.

Truths about the Developing World

Those who live in the West and in highly industrialized, developed countries often have many misconceptions about people living in less-industrialized, developing countries. People might assume that everyone lives in a jungle, that they have never heard of Facebook, or that they are all miserable and unhappy. Having studied anthropology and development studies as an undergraduate, and having been to the developing countries of India, Bhutan, and Mexico, I would like to share some thoughts on what the situation is really like.

-People have technology and electronic goods. Granted, this is not everyone, but to assume that nobody has a phone or a computer or a television is completely erroneous. Some might find that the technology in certain situations in developing countries is more advanced than what we would find in the West. For example, over a decade ago, there was a cell phone charging station with at least seven different types of chargers at Madras Anna International Airport–something I had never seen anywhere in America. However, one could generalize that there are issues with regular power supply, the grid, frequent blackouts, and getting electricity to rural and undeveloped areas. Many tech companies have been working on this issue. The infrastructure for power and electricity are what is often most problematic in developing countries, not the actual presence or not of technology.
-There is great wealth. A wealthy family might throw a quinceañera costing tens of thousands of dollars, send their children to boarding schools or American colleges, or fly to Milan or Paris to buy the latest clothes by Prada or Dior. However, a single digit percentage of the population may hold 90% of the country’s wealth while the rest of the people live in great poverty. A middle class may not exist at all, or be a minimal segment of the population. There are extremes in class stratification to a degree we might not see in Western Europe or in many parts of America. America, however, is becoming rather like a developing country, where the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer since the Reagan era, and the pandemic has highlighted this to a heart-wrenching degree.
-A history of colonialism. This point is so large and rich that I cannot even begin to address it here. However, there are still many countries that are suffering from centuries of being ruled by a European power, and the United States has created a new form of economic colonialism as well. The CIA has committed countless atrocities overseas.
-Infrastructure, especially with transportation, can be a problem. You might have to fly out of your country to a different airport in order to fly back to another city in your country. A distance of 200 miles may take two days to drive, because there are not suitable roads. This affects access to services and goods.
-Medical care. This varies greatly between developing countries. You may find world-class medical facilities in urban India or Bangkok that service Western medical tourists. However, in parts of (West) Africa, such as Liberia, you may have 10 doctors per million people. Even with medical facilities, there may not be adequate resources and equipment. Airlifting a gravely ill patient may not be a possibility due to large distances or the availability of air transport.
-Political instability. This is a big one. Many developing countries have incredible natural resources or services that could bring the country tremendous wealth and therefore development. However, corruption, mismanagement, fraud, political violence, unstable governments, embezzlement, and a lack of social structures that distribute these resources and services cheat billions of people worldwide from having basic needs fulfilled. However, America, being a hybrid of superpower and developing country, has no right to criticize developing countries, not when we have a revolving door of politicians under our current embarrassment of an administration.
-Epidemics are often a part of daily life. The Covid-19 pandemic is something shocking and unexpected to most Americans, but for many people all over the world, public health crises in the form of diseases is nothing new. Swine flu, HIV, etc. have inflicted so many millions of people globally prior to the pandemic, and developing countries are often better equipped or more knowledgeable as to how to deal with these crises.
-The tension between traditional and modern medicine. Again, this varies greatly between countries. But it is still a significant issue. Scientists may try to suggest that allowing animals to defecate in a river is contaminating their water supply, but people pay no heed. Someone suffering from an epileptic fit might be taken to a shaman to be exorcised from some sort of demon, rather than being given the proper medication to work with the neurotransmitters in the brain. Or, modern/Western medicine may be regarded with some skepticism, as the tool of the white man. Sometimes, local traditions may actually be more effective and inexpensive for treating certain conditions, and Western medicine has come to appreciate these ancient forms of wisdom.
-Climate change. Whether it’s fatal flooding in Bangladesh or drought in farming areas, our modern world is affecting the developing world disproportionately. We have a staggering refugee crisis, and while these may have a political or sociological basis, there is also an environmental component. We have a responsibility in the developed world to do our share to help this problem. However, there are serious issues with pollution in many developing countries, due to the type of vehicles people drive and the type of fuel these vehicles consume. Governments in developing countries could do a much better job of regulating emissions, banning certain types of vehicles and fuels, and working on more environmentally-sustainable alternatives.

There are so many more points to be discussed, but let me conclude by saying that another misconception is that everyone in the developing world is miserable, ailing, and decrepit. There is no question that poverty is one of the most serious afflictions we have in the world today. But we cannot dismiss the fact that human beings are human beings everywhere, that whether rich or poor, people share the same fears, joys, the needs to celebrate, jealousies, curiosities, life milestones like weddings or funerals, etc. What people in the West and developed world need to understand is how better to help the developing world so that people in those countries are not exploited or do not suffer certain (easily ameliorated) conditions–especially those created by wealthy countries like the United States.

Mama Africa

This post is a sort of counterpoint to the previous one, I suppose. A couple of years back, in order to get myself out of a bad mood, I decided to search online for some information related to poverty, as my status as a well-educated American is certainly a very enviable one, globally speaking. I happened upon some Human Development Index (HDI) charts, and they brought me to tears. At the bottom of the list were the nations of sub-Saharan Africa. I think Niger was at the bottom of the list. And it struck me, as it has struck me many times before—–
Why is it that the darker the skin, the poorer the man?
Why is it that the poorest countries have the darkest-skinned people? Or,
Why is it that, in every country (even in populations where everyone is dark-skinned), the poorest people or the people at the bottom of society are the most dark?

The negative effects of this are numerous. Not only is there the obvious issue of racial discrimination, but also issues of public health, education, political access, and economics. The causes are also numerous: colonialism, capitalism gone wild, internal strife/civil war, the interaction of genetics and culture (social Darwinism), the caste system (in India; caste means “color,” but it also relates to labor and one’s particular social group). People of non-white cultures will most certainly freely admit that there is discrimination among them, and lighter-skinned people are considered “better.”

But when this issue is on such a continental scale, when the poorest nations are all centered on one continent, one cannot help but ask why this is so, and why more effective efforts are not being done? What is it about the intertwining of capitalism and race that has led to such social stratification? One person alone cannot provide all the answers; even governments and institutions struggle with this and have been struggling with this for centuries.

Perhaps part of it begins with those of us in the developed world examining our perceptions, or shall we say, misperceptions of Africa as all one monolithic place. The continent is a conglomeration of many races, religions, languages, and cultures. Over 50 countries comprise the continent countries which can be perceived as various regions, such as Egypt and the Maghreb (the Muslim north); the Saharan countries which are so sparsely populated and often nomadic; Western Africa, from where American blacks trace their ancestry, with oil-rich Nigeria; the cradle of human origins in Eastern Africa, mountainous regions as well as plains; Central Africa, former colonies which are still undergoing much political strife as well as being developed for harvesting natural resources, and the world’s poorest country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Southern Africa with its ever-continuing legacy of European settlers and high rates of AIDS. These are but crass generalizations, but it is imperative that people see Africa as a continent with great diversity connected through geography, history, and, sadly, poverty and a lack of development.

It is not simply fashionable, leftist rhetoric to raise these questions and correlate poverty with skin color; the statistics speak for themselves. This is the beauty of the social sciences, to be able to connect theories about society with the hard data that backs it up. We must examine the manifestations of poverty in each of our societies and communities in which we live. We must be willing to ask the hard questions and examine the hard answers. Yes, it may be ugly. But so is the reality that billions of people all over the world, not just in Africa, are facing.