The political turmoil in Kenya is much in the news at present. Many of us in this country will be tempted to agree with our correspondent Secret Policeman, who wrote in the Grumpy Guest Book "Whenever anything negative happens in Africa (which is often) it's always somebody else's fault. It's never the fault of Africans. Africa as a continent seems to have no responsibility for itself whatsoever. The whole continent is riddled with corruption, which is being fed by never-ending over-generous handouts by the West. That's why the people are so poor and hungry, and Africa's political leaders are so overfed and wealthy. Money for aid is diverted into the bank accounts of Africa's élite. The poor never see a penny. But yet Africa's leaders are in no way at fault.
"We pump money into this never ending Cash Cow through an misplaced sense of guilt, that we are responsible for every ill that occurs there. The Left will bleat about the days of colonialism. But the former European powers left Africa decades ago. How long do the Africans have to be free of European influence before they can run their own affairs? It seems that they'll never be able to take responsibility, and we'll be doing it for them forever."
So it was with some surprise and satisfaction that we came upon the following account of a recent visit to Kenya on the excellent Roads of Stone website. It offers a slightly different viewpoint, and comes to a conclusion that has certainly not occurred to us before …
'Say No to Corruption', read the badge on the immigration officer's sleeve at Mombasa airport. Drawing our attention to the issue, right from the moment when we entered the country.
Kenya's president from 1978 to 2002, Daniel arap Moi, was widely detested for corruption and political oppression. During his term, Kenya slipped from the 133rd to the 155th country in the world in economic prosperity. There might not be that many more countries.
Moi's successor, Mwai Kibaki, was elected on an anti-corruption ticket - hence the badge campaign in Mombasa. But when I asked Kenyans during our visit what they thought of Kibaki - they were unanimous. 'He's the same as all the others,' they said. 'Corrupt, just like the rest of them.'
Yesterday's declaration of Kibaki as victor in the Kenyan elections, despite a string of exit polls indicating firmly that he had lost to Raila Odinga, serves only to confirm that view.
Corruption. It might be Africa's biggest problem. Certainly it's the one trotted out by people who don't want to help the continent. 'There's no point giving money, or aid,' they say. 'It's unlikely to end up with those who need it.'
But this trip, I began to understand corruption, just a little. Not the kind of barefaced electoral swindle which threatens the whole practice of democracy, but rather the day-to-day variety. The siphoning off the top of just a little, and then more and more goods and money, so that finally they don't arrive at all.
Why do people do it, and how can they so mindlessly deprive the needy ? That's something I'd never come close to comprehending before.
It started soon after we arrived at our hotel. We started making enquiries to find an orphanage in the area. 'We've brought some things for the children there,' we explained. 'And we'd like to take our children, to see for themselves.'
The news got around. Guests in the hotel who had things to give away. A quiet word from the waiter. A tactful suggestion from the lady at the pool. An outright request from the taxi driver, when we arranged our ride to the orphanage.
'If you've brought some things with you, then please give them to me. Because my kids are starving.'
At first I found it shocking. Cynical. Appalling, even. Just imagine, if you were taking a bag of old clothes and toys to the charity shop at home, and someone asked you if they could rifle through it first. It would simply never happen.
But the more I dissected it, the more I realised that's just how it was. Yes, these people had jobs, but they didn't earn much. The hotel didn't always pay them on time, and sometimes it didn't pay at all. They dared not complain, for fear of being sacked on the spot. Such is the labour market, when there are millions unemployed and millions more starving. The hotel staff were all desperately thin, and desperately doing their best to feed their families on very little. The whole village was living from hand to mouth, and from day to day.
For the taxi driver, it was harder still. He came from Malindi, half an hour up the coast, and he had three kids of his own to look after, and two more he'd taken in from sick relatives, too. He had absolutely no money - I had to pay him at the start of every journey, so that he could buy petrol on the way out of town. His financial arrangements didn't even run to purchasing fuel for his taxi.
And when he asked for our help, it wasn't that easy to decline. Because those kids in the orphanage - in material terms, they were luckier than most. They had food on the table, and a roof over their heads. They had health care, and schooling, and clean water, and beds and mosquito nets. They wanted for little, except a parent of their own.
So we gave our taxi driver a few children's clothes from our cache. And we found toys for the twin girls of the lady by the pool, too - it was no trouble to us, since we weren't taking any of those things home.
But that series of events - it set me thinking. It wasn't the existence of such poverty. It was the nature of it, and the scale.
Slowly it dawned that the social rules that we live by - well, they might not work here. When everyone around you is starving, the niceties of tact are irrelevant. Because, yes, the orphanage kids need assistance, but you might need it more.
And in a second, I could see life here quite differently. European or American values didn't apply so straightforwardly where existence was a raw and Darwinian struggle for survival. You had to ask for what you could get, and you had to get it somehow.
Suddenly, the whole issue of corruption began to make more sense. Which is the more important human right ? A man's right to property, or his neighbour's to life ? In our world, that choice rarely arises. But in vast parts of Africa, it's a question of life or death every day. If a man has money which he can live without, and which you need to survive, then the reasons for taking it become much clearer to see.
I'd never condone it, but I could begin to understand it, for the very first time.
To keep body and soul together, then at a certain level, any ruse will do. And if you do survive, even then there are no guarantees that will continue. You have to keep on eating, and keep on acquiring, to distance yourself further from the abyss. And so corruption and theft continues long after it's a mortal question.
In that world and in that culture, that's just what people do, and how the moral realities apply. And for ministers and government officials, with the status and financial benefits which are offered to them, the temptation to hang on to power and the wealth that goes with it might be even more compelling.
In Africa, that adage is true. The man stole the money, but society was to blame.
To change that culture, Africa needs much more than anti-corruption laws and enforcement. We have to alleviate the hardship and suffering which lie at the root of this crime in the first place. Money is even more desperately needed if it might not all get through. Because in the long run, kindness is the only cure.
And whilst that struggle for survival continues, there'll be no lasting salvation for those people, and that society will always hang on the brink of decay.
Into dictatorship, anarchy and bloodshed. Exactly as we've seen in Kenya today.
The GOS says: At the risk of stirring up a storm of protest, and with some trepidation because I'm definitely no expert on Africa, politics or economics, I'd like to offer the following thought.
It has been said - and it certainly rings true to me - that the Environmental Nazis and the Global Warming Fairies and the Love-Everything-Ethnic Tree-Huggers are actually damaging the African continent with their insistence that many kinds of technological development are "bad" for the Africans and should be blocked. Parts of Africa have reserves of coal, but do we encourage them to mine it and use it to make the electricity they so badly need? No, that would hasten Global Warming.
Spraying the walls of their houses with DDT has been shown to be a crude but reasonably effective way of cutting down the risk of malaria, but do we encourage them to do it? No, that would damage the ecological environment.
Some large multi-national companies are attempting to exploit the wealth of Africa. Royal Dutch Shell, for instance, run most of Nigeria's oil-fields and have come under vehement attack from campaigners for their activities which are held to be environmentally damaging. This website contains damning though rather anecdotal account ("I live near the Shell plant in South Durban and my mother died of cancer, my niece died of cancer, three of my friends died of cancer") of the dangers of Shell/BP operations in South Africa.
While there does seem to be a case for the oil companies to answer - the website states that the Shell refinery in Denmark is many times cleaner than the Shell refinery in Durban, though it doesn't say how many times, or why - there is little doubt that all and any attempts by Western big business to exploit the natural resources of the continent will be fought tooth and nail by social and environmental campaigners. They may be doing so with the very best of intentions, but their desire to relegate Africa to the status of a cosy, picturesque ethnic museum is dangerously simplistic.
As I said above, at the risk of stirring up a storm of protest, I find myself wondering if the best thing for Africa might not be a new kind of colonialism - not political, but economic. In Great Britain our climb to a modern, scientific, occasionally rational, sometimes fair and mostly prosperous society began with gross exploitation in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when the land-owners and the new commercial class raped the land of its goodies, smothered the country with suffocating factories and crammed a previously-rural population into sweatshops, mines and filthy mills.
Dreadful, we think. But how long did it last? Once a working class had been created, waged and organised, it quickly became hard to manage. In less than a hundred years the working man became an educated, literate, thinking person with a mind of his own. He went to chapel, discussed with his friends the way society should be, formed trades unions and joined political parties. It wasn't easy of course, and there were many defeats on the way. Many of us feel that we are still being defeated, and that we have been betrayed by at least one of the very institutions we formed to protect us - namely, the Labour Party.
But the fact remains that from poverty and total oppression two centuries ago, we now have a university education, access to knowledge and information unparalleled in the history of mankind and freely available through cheap newspapers, television and the internet, two cars in the drive, three computers, foreign holidays, a boat in the garage, en-suite facilities, central heating and a television in every bedroom.
Maybe that's what Africa needs? Maybe instead of thinking we have to control them, and protect them from the wicked Western world, and preserve them in timeless innocence supported by our generous handouts, we should actually be looking for ways to make money out of them?
Because if our own history is anything to go by, that's the best way to start them off in our footprints. Build factories, sink mines, sell them coal-fired power stations, put in roads and railways to serve those industries, give them jobs, let them earn a wage (though not too much, of course), show them that a bit of education will allow them to earn more, use them to turn a profit and they'll soon begin their own rise to prosperity just as we did, and be snapping at our heels. And with the example of our own history to guide them, it won't take them two hundred years this time - I'd give it about fifty.
Corruption there will still be, of course, in the meantime. Crime there will be. Fighting there will be - maybe even further genocides. Civic unrest and political chicanery there will certainly be. After all, we still have all of those things ourselves. But it's a lot harder to rip off an educated man than it is an illiterate peasant. It's not so easy to be a lunatic despot like Mugabe when your population have televisions and enough to eat.
And while the former Yugoslavia (and certain estates in Rochdale) may have dented the argument a bit, men with jobs and mortgages and white goods in the kitchen tend, on the whole, not to dash round to the neighbours waving a machete at the slightest provocation.
Well, there you are. I know it would be lovely to believe that we could, with the benefit of our wisdom, guide these poor people quickly and peacefully into a new and better world. But it doesn't seem to be working too well so far, and perhaps we should just admit that there are certain growing pains any society must go through before it achieves our own state of grace.
God, listen to me. "State of grace"? Who the hell am I kidding?
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
Copyright © 2007 The GOS
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