The winners eat and the losers don’t …

– By Stefan Gilbert –

About an hour after the plane was scheduled to depart, we were told that the flight to Sierra Leone would be delayed by six hours. This, I was told, would make for an interesting night. The trick with Sierra Leone is that you must cross the peninsula to get to the capital, Freetown. This must be done by boat, and a night crossing doesn’t rate highly on the “what you should do when you visit Sierra Leone” list. So, at about two o’clock in the morning, I found myself with 8 other travellers walking on a partly submerged pier to climb in to the waiting boat. But this was the easy part. Arriving at the airport in Sierra Leone one is met by a thronging hoard of people who want to help you in one way or another. Luckily, I had asked around prior to arrival and had learned that Pelican Water Taxis were the most reliable. Finding them, however, was like swimming in a mass of human bodies, all competing for space in pool of high humidity and 30 degree heat.

If I had to pick one word to describe travel in Africa it is “patience”. Never be in a rush; never be unfriendly; NEVER lose your cool; always be respectful and always have a smile and a joke at hand. In all cases, it is a sin to “expect” your plane to be on time or for your luggage to arrive with you. Thus “hope” is the most appropriate form of expectation, and “gratitude” is the most appropriate way of reacting if your suitcase does appear on the conveyer belt. When it does not, as has happened to me now twice on this journey of 9 weeks, more patience and perseverance are called for. Suggesting to anyone who will listen that you are not a tourist, and subtle hints that you have important documents in your luggage that may or may not be of interest to an MP or Minister, can’t hurt. It also seems to help if you make it abundantly clear that you will not stop harassing whoever is available to be harassed until the luggage finally does arrive.

Of course, some countries are better then others. Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa of course, fare much better then countries like Nigeria, Senegal, the DRC, and Sierra Leone (which is the most chaotic I have yet to witness). I am not entirely sure if this has some more profound meaning, however. Politics is often a game of appearances, language, and symbols. A new and imposing Parliament building may have significant symbolic value, but the interior may be defined by elevators that don’t work and fire extinguishers that have instructions in Chinese. Similarly, the language of democracy and good intentions can often be heard from the mouths of Presidents and politicians. The saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, if hummed and put to music, could in some countries qualify as the national anthem. In short, intentions are not enough at this point, words are meaningless unless there is action, by which I don’t mean action next week or tomorrow; I mean today.

That the people I meet in Africa are often characterised by their generosity and hospitality is a testament to their humanity and enduring optimism. That said, cynicism in Africa is rife. Faith that governments will listen to and provide its people with what they need is low. Expectations are unmet and hopes are often compromised by inescapable realities. Food for my kids in exchange for a vote tomorrow, is a choice I have never and hope I never have to make. That poverty undermines the functioning of democracy is an understatement worthy of the Noble Prize for Understatements. But, the problems that undermine democracy in many of the countries I visit are not simple, they are not specific, they are not few: they are legion. There are so many factors that play into politics in Africa that it can make the head spin. In some countries, like the DRC, the most pertinent and disempowering questions is: “Where the hell do we begin?” There are no innocents in the political arena. There are no neutral parties. It is a contest for power, wealth, and influence with rules understood as describing and defining a zero-sum game. There are the winners, and there are the losers. The winners eat and the losers don’t.

But while the politicians, banks, big businesses (many of which are now South African), donors and even civil society compete for space around the trough of wealth and power, the people remain the perennial losers. While the façade of governments have changed, and checklists can be completed, political will seems only to be seeking the entrenchment of the status quo. While some countries leave some room for hope, many offer only foreboding political vistas. Nevertheless, I am continually amazed by the dedication of our colleagues on the continent, who continue with their work in the face of staggering resistance. That the time for excuses and recriminations is over is a common theme with those I meet, and we must move beyond the rhetoric of finding someone to blame. They remind me of the idea that courage is not the absence of fear, it is being afraid and doing it anyway.

Hence, the work that we do at Idasa is important. I do not think we can overestimate how serious the problems are, or how desperately this continent needs our skills, dedication, and ideals. So, tomorrow it will be another meeting, another trip in another taxi in another endless traffic jam in torturous humidity and heat. And Friday it will be another boat ride, another plane, and another conveyor belt full of suitcases, with me waiting and hoping, wondering whether Santa has judged me naughty or nice.

Stefan works with Idasa’s Political Governance Programme.  He is currently visiting partners in support of the African Charter on Democracy – see more here.


One Response

  1. “That poverty undermines the functioning of democracy is an understatement worthy of the Nobel Prize for Understatements.”
    I like that. Our NGO-speak often robs us of meaning, lulls us into complacency, I think. Thanks for this Stefan, your frankness and reminder how desperately Africa needs our skills and hard work is best end-of-year letter to us all.

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