|The Agony of Africa|
Issue #35 (July 1984)
When one returns from three months of land travel in central Africa, people automatically ask: What's it like there? What's going on? There are, of course, many things to describe: the variety and fascination of different lifestyles, the majesty of the rivers and jungles, the wealth of animals and plants, the warmth and vibrancy of the people. One can also mention the squalor [quoteright]of the cities, the oppressiveness of the governments, the problems of disease and poverty. But there is an overall situation in central Africa that I feel is insufficiently recognized outside the continent. It is the prospective collapse of most of the "European" facilities - particularly power and transport systems -- on which the current generation of Africans has learned to depend. When these go, central Africa will begin the agonizing process of returning to the nineteenth century.
By "central Africa" I mean roughly the countries between South Africa and the Sahara. These are mostly lands where European colonizers firmly installed themselves and then departed completely. Had the colonizers never come in the first place, or had they managed to stay in significant numbers, things might be different. It is the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't nature of European technology that has set in motion the agony of Africa. Future historians may say that the whole process of partial Europeanization followed by the rapid departure of the Europeans constituted the most massive dirty trick in history. From a technical viewpoint, maintaining a railway system or an electrical power net is not easy. If you let the quality of the system fall too far, the whole suddenly becomes unusable. Thus there is a point at which a railway track becomes so hazardous that you dare not run a train on it; where a power line becomes so leaky that you dare not feed electricity into it. Then you must either find the skill and money to rebuild the facility or you must learn to do without it. These technological facilities along with hard-surfaced roads, telephone systems, piped water and so on - of course did not exist in central Africa before the Europeans put them there. They were largely in place and working when the Europeans left in the 1960s, although there were cases of last-minute sabotage by the departing colonials. In very general terms, they kept working on their own momentum during the 60s. During the 1970s, still speaking very generally, the new African nations came to grips with the problems of maintenance. But their efforts depended largely on imported skills and borrowed money. In the heyday of third-world loan syndication, normally skeptical American and European bankers were talked into providing vast sums for projects in places they eould't even find on the map. This money kept things going for another decade.
Today, the systems that were left in place in the 1960s have been patched and repatched but are still rapidly disintegrating. New loan money has virtually disappeared, as bankers scramble just to keep the old debts out of default. The local skills and resources that were supposed to pick up the load at this point are completely inadequate. For example, over 80% of the formerly hard-surfaced roads in Zaire are now usable, if at all, only by 4-wheel drive vehicles; rail schedules are being cut back in Nigeria; the electric supply fails regularly in the Ivory Coast and other countries; and phone service is on its last legs everywhere.
It is no put-down on Africans that they are not coping with European technology. For one thing, they didn't ask for it in the first place. For another, these sophisticated systems were mostly transplanted without modification from Europe to the vastly more difficult African environment. Distances are greater, heat and humidity is more severe, parasites and diseases abound. The Europeans themselves found it difficult to keep their machines going in Africa. But they managed it, and at the same time convinced the Africans that their machines were essential to good living.
Thus the problem, in a nutshell, is that during the colonial period Africans learned to want and depend oi things that they are unable to provide for themselves.
Whatever happened to the vision of the de-colonizers, the idea that once Africans were unshackled from European exploitation they would build modern nations by themselves? So far it hasn't happened, and I see no evident mechanism by which it will happen in the future. Two reasons are commonly cited for this departure from plan, reasons that arose from misconceptions about Africans that would have made Pollyanna blush.
The first misconception was that Africans are a basically homogeneous people. Nothing could be more wrong. In Zambia alone there are 73 distinct tribal groups, and most other countries are made up of hundreds. These groups are as different in customs, values, and lifestyles as any European countries. They speak mutually incomprehensible languages and practice different religions. They tend to scorn and mistrust one another. Before the colonizers came, their dominant mode of interaction was warfare. In most central African countries today, one tribe or even one family controls the government; being unable to obtain a natural consensus with the other groups, they must rule by force and manipulation. We see blacks ruling blacks and think that everything must be OK. But at least in this area the average African is more sophisticated politically than the average American; he understands instinctively why we don't want Russians in the White House, even though they are white like us.
The problem is that any government which rules a mistrustful people by force finds it hard to get anything constructive done. Most communal energy gets wasted in bickering and corruption. Several central African rulers have thrown up their hands and simply concentrated on looting their own countries, letting everything else slide.
The other misconception is that Africans are possessed of a natural European work ethic, which was sapped and suppressed by the colonizers. It is true that Africans can, and often do, work very hard - harder In fact than most Europeans. But they do not have a natural tradition of structuring their work in the ways demanded by complex technological systems. Life in Africa, even in colonial times, never stimulated or required such a tradition. In general Africans place less emphasis on abstract causes and delayed effects than Europeans do, while being more attentive to immediate events. Thus a typical African railway crew will be less concerned to change a bearing today so the wheel won't freeze tomorrow, while a the same time being more alert to the hearing when it does fail. Unfortunately, this is not the best way to run a railroad. In effect, African railroads were designed by people with one set of work habits and then handed over to people with an entirely different set.
Well, what do the central Africans need all this stuff for, anyway? Won't they be better off without things like railroads and electricity? Fifty years ago, perhaps, the colonizers might have been able to dismantle their machines and cart them away without causing much pain. But modern Africans have acquired a dependence that is at least psychological and in many cases also physical. They feel they should have these things. Before leaving, the colonizers succeeded in convincing then that life with complicated machines is much better than life without. Cold turkey de-mechanization is not a practical option today.
So what is likely to happen? Over the next 20 to 30 years, I foresee the progressive disappearance from central Africa of most European technology. Obviously it will not disappear everywhere at the same rate. In particular, countries with exploitable resources such as copper or oil will still be able to trade them for imported technological goodies. But eventually central Africa will "go bush," as the ex-colonials call it. The people will be forced into new ways of living, closer to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth.
The tragedy is that this process will almost certainly involve great human suffering. Aside from the psychological pain of ruined expectations, there will undoubtedly be repeated political upheavals, massive personal dislocations, periods of chaos. When such events happen in Africa they are usually accompanied by murder, starvation, and disease. The world may look on with dismay, but I doubt that we will do any more to help than we did in Biafra or Uganda. The human suffering we already saw in those places was just a foretaste of the agony of Africa yet to come.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.