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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 16 - West Africa and Southern Africa

                        Here, where my fresh-turned furrows run,
                          And the deep soil glistens red,
                        I will repair the wrong that was done
                          To the living and the dead.
                        Here, where the senseless bullet fell,
                          And the barren shrapnel burst,
                        I will plant a tree, I will dig a well,
                          Against the heat and the thirst.

                        Here, in a large and sunlit land,
                          Where no wrong bites to the bone,
                        I will lay my hand in my neighbour’s hand,
                          And together we will atone
                        For the set folly and the red breach
                          And the black waste of it all;
                        Giving and taking counsel each
                          Over the cattle-kraal.

                        Here, in the waves and troughs of the plains,
                          Where the healing stillness lies,
                        And the vast benignant sky restrains
                          And the long days make wise –
                        Bless to our use the rain and the sun
                          And the blind seed in its bed,
                        That we may repair the wrong that was done
                          To the living and the dead !

                                                Rudyard Kipling           The Settler

                                                                                    (South African War ended, May 1902)

Saturday mornings as a young boy I would often join friends at the local cinema matinee for an admission cost of 3 or 4 old pennies.  The programme was usually a Western movie or adventure film.  Very popular were the Tarzan and Jungle Jim films, invariably featuring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller.  These gave me my first impressions of Africa, (though they were probably all filmed in the USA), and later reading the books of Scottish explorers and missionaries like Mungo Park and David Livingstone, I compiled the common romantic view of the region.  Harsh realities of another side to the dark continent were glimpsed years later in what we heard about the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya, and the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Our local Laird, Captain James Brander Dunbar of Pitgaveny, (b.1875, d.1969), was a colourful character, and an old Africa hand.  I believe his father of the same name and title was the model for John Buchan’s fictional character ‘John Macnab’.   I spent an afternoon with him in 1965 when on a brief home leave and at his request our U.F. church minister Mr Adamson, brought me to his house which was a veritable museum of African artifacts.  Captain Dunbar wore a kilt most of the time, and feuded regularly with local councils when he reckoned they stepped on his realm of authority.  Sixty years after he served in the Boer war, he could still recall Bantu and Bushman words with accuracy.

Slavery had been abolished but a century before, and as a boy I read emotive accounts of that wicked trade that blemished our record in West Africa for over a hundred years.  My father used to quote from Longfellow’s poem, The Slave’s Dream:

Beside the ungathered rice he lay, his sickle in his hand,
His breast was bare, his matted hair, lay buried in the sand,
Again in the mist and shadow of sleep, he saw his native land.   …
He did not feel the driver’s whip, or the burning heat of day,
For death had illumined the land of sleep, and his lifeless body lay, -
A worn-out fetter, that the soul had broken and thrown away.

map of West Africa

The history of the horrific slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, is a shameful blot on the characters of the nations involved.  One is surprised that it took so long to eradicate that evil.  It is salutary to note the arguments made in support of slavery.  They were mainly economic, but also military and even religious.  Similar arguments are put forward today in defence of torture, prostitution, imprisonment without trial, use of land mines and cluster bombs, and illegal invasions or interference in the affairs of other sovereign states. We condemn the evils of the past, but are often blind to those of the present. 

                           drawing of a slave march                                   African slave ship

The great campaigner against slavery

William Wilberforce, more than any other person in Britain, Europe or America, brought the iniquitous slave trade to an end, by his tireless and life-long efforts.  A devout Christian, and Member of Parliament, he declined high office and remained independent all his life so he could more effectively expose the evils of slavery and promote the abolition.  Supported by senior politicians like William Pitt the Younger,  inspired by prominent Christians like John Newton and the members of the ‘Clapham sect’, and opposed by the most of the Royalty and the merchants involved in the West Indies trade, Wilberforce worked tirelessly to achieve legislation ending the slave trade in 1807, and abolition of slavery in the year of his death in 1833.

The men were all put in irons, two and two shackled together, to prevent their mutiny or swimming ashore. The Negroes are so willful and loth to leave their own country, that they have often leap’d out of canoes, boat and ship, into the sea, and kept under water until they were drowned to avoid being taken up … they having a more dreadful apprehension of Barbados than we have of hell  Captain H. Thomas, “The Slave Trade - 1440 – 1870”.

 The stench of the hold (of the slave ship), while we were on the coast, was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time … now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential.  The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number on the ship, being so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.  This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit to breathe, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died … The shrieks of the women , and the groans of the dying, rendered it a scene of horror almost inconceivable. from “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of (former slave) Olaudah Equiano” 1789

The slaves are stowed so close, that there is not room to tread among them. … For the sake of exercise, these miserable wretches, loaded with chains, oppressed with disease, - are forced to dance by the terror of the lash, and sometimes by its use. … Such enormities as these, having once come within my knowledge, I should not have been faithful to my senses or reason, if I had shrunk from attempting the abolition…. I could not help distrusting the arguments of those, who insisted that the plundering of Africa was necessary for the cultivation of the West Indies.  I could not believe that the same Being who forbids rapine and bloodshed, had made rapine and bloodshed necessary to the well-being of any part of His universe. from Wilberforce’s speeches to Parliament, 1789

Africa, Africa, your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engages my heart – your sufferings no tongue can express; no language impart.  …  The restoration of these poor distressed people to their rights, is nearest to my heart.   We were once as obscure as the nations of the earth, as savage in our manners, as debased in our morals, as degraded in our understandings, as these unhappy Africans are at present.  … Had other nations applied to Great Britain the reasoning which some (here) apply to Africa, ages might have passed without our emerging from barbarism.  … God forbid that we should any longer subject Africa to the same scourge, and preclude the light of knowledge, which has reached every other quarter of the globe, from having access to her coasts!from Wilberforce’s speeches to Parliament, 1792

(Most of the above is drawn from William Hague’s splendid biography of William Wilberforce, the life of the great anti-slave trade campaigner, Harper Collins, London, 2007.)

                on board a slave ship, - drawing                               actual photograph of a slave ship

I worked in several West African countries in the 1990’s.  Some, like Togo and Benin, were beset with corruption and rotten rulers whose rotund bodies and greedy eyes gazed from portraits in every public office.  They were usually pictured in uniform, bedecked with medals of doubtful meaning or origin.  Their fancy limousines would be preceded by a score or more of motor-cycle policemen, and all other vehicles had to drive off the road as the President’s vehicle approached.  In some African countries, any one who dared to walk past the ruler’s palace gates after dark would be shot before any questions were asked.  The corruption went down the line with every official grabbing all he could.  My heart went out to idealistic fishery staff members in a francophone country whose miserable salaries were taxed by their boss to augment his. 

Canoes and catches on West African beaches

Over in Freetown, Sierra Leone, before the civil war there, those poor but delightful people suffered under a government that couldn’t or wouldn’t pay their salaries.  I have had hungry officers in the Ministry of Natural resources or Agriculture, beg for a few Leones to help them feed their families.  The fishery offices in Freetown were formerly the British Navy’s barracks in that port.  In 1990 they looked as if they had not been swept out, far less painted or repaired since the day the last British sailor marched out.  In some government offices there and elsewhere in West Africa, files lay in a heap in the corner of the offices of directors or senior administrators.  Away from the capital, government officers sat at empty desks beside typewriters that lay idle due to lack of paper or ink ribbons. The roads in Freetown had potholes every few yards, yet scores of diamond dealers were driving around in Mercedes Benz cars while the vast majority of the people lived in squalid circumstances. 

Gambia, market scene               

Cape Verde, former Portuguese base off West AfricaI I visited these lovely but barren islands on behalf of Iceland’s foreign aid programme.

Gambia, being a smaller country, north of Sierra Leone, had less population pressure or urban squalor.  It also maintains a strong British culture inherited from colonial days.  One finds Africans who served with Scottish regiments, still able to play the bagpipes with pride.  Offshore, the islands of Capo Verde, a former Portuguese trading ship base, are very different from mainland Africa, but struggle to create a sustainable economy due to poor soil, limited fresh water, and little tradable resource apart from fish (mainly ocean swimming tunas).

My experience with the Shell Oil company of Nigeria gave me a glimpse of the problems created when you have the extraction of enormous wealth from an area where local people live in dire poverty.  I had similar experiences with Caltex in Indonesia. The Niger delta pays a heavy price in environmental damage for the oil extraction business, and one can understand why this has led to attacks on installations, and to bloodshed at times.  To give Shell its due, the company attempts to provide compensation, and in the Delta area it operates an agriculture extension service bigger than anything the federal or state governments could mount.  My judgement was that the reason this did not placate the locals was the manner in which the service was provided.  Shell’s pandered and well-paid local officers (all black, - the whole company is locally staffed), strutted about like little lords and treated the people accordingly.  The locals were not really consulted, - they were simply told what Shell would do for them, and how they had to cooperate. 

Similarly, my recollections of Caltex in eastern Sumatra, are of a beautiful modern floodlit complex behind a high barbed wire fence.  Just outside the fence, local fishers had to manhandle their baskets of fish up a steep muddy path from the river below to a miserable shack set on top of a rubbish dump, where their fish were auctioned.  There were no facilities worth the mention, - no clean water, toilets, or proper access for fish vans or tricycles.  And the fishers had to pay 10% of their sales income for the privilege.  Perhaps conditions have changed since, but the contrast then was obscene.

Map of the Niger Delta where Shell Oil has massive investments.      West African marine canoes.

Oil, perhaps more than any other resource, creates serious social tensions in poor countries where the enormous income is grabbed by the ruling elite, with little distribution down the economic ladder. Professor Michael Klare writes : “When countries with few other sources of national wealth exploit their petroleum reserves, the ruling elites typically monopolise the distribution of oil revenues, enriching themselves and their cronies while leaving the rest of the population mired in poverty – and the well-equipped and often privileged security forces of these “petro-states” can be counted on to support them.  When the divide between privileged and disadvantaged coincides with tribal or religious differences, as it often does, violence isa likely outcome.  The Western press may describe such conflict as “ethnic” in character, but it comes largely from the perversive effects of oil production.” [The Dependency Dilemma, in Blood and Oil, by M. Klare, Penguin, 2005] 

With all its faults, British rule in Africa never produced such horrendous results, - at least, not since the Boer War which was a monumental foreign policy disaster.  Despite my obvious liberal and leftish views, I must admit that colonial rule in the 20th century was largely beneficial for the continent and its peoples.  Some Governors were admirable men of understanding and integrity.  My wife and I bought a farmhouse in Edinburgh from Sir Peter and Lady Isobel Faucus who had served in Botswana after the war, and till the colony achieved independence.  He and his wife regularly entertained Africans studying in Edinburgh each Christmas, in a former ‘bothy’ building behind our farmhouse, and we were also welcomed to these events.  I had the chance to visit Botswana when undertaking work for SADC, the Southern Africa Development Community, in the 1990’s and found it peaceful and relatively prosperous as Sir Peter had described it. 

Are there not some bright spots in Africa?   Are there not at least a few success stories?  The answer is yes, and I will name two where I spent some time.  One is Ghana where the half-Scot leader, former flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings managed to bring his country out of impending disaster to be the one example in West Africa of reasonably fair and stable government and profitable industry.  The people are hard working and intelligent, and while corruption exists, it is far from the extremes ones finds in most of the continent.  Rawlings called himself “Chairman” rather than “President”.  He avoided fanfare.  I was driving around Accra in a taxi one day when an ordinary-looking minibus passed us. The taxi driver said, “Did you see who was sitting in the front of that minibus?  That was Chairman Rawlings.  He doesn’t mind traveling about like an ordinary citizen”. 

Jerry Rawlings, former President of Ghana.  He had a Scottish mother.

Ghana was also the only country where I met the Prime Minister [Not quite correct.  In Papua New Guinea I worked with Sir Mekere Maruata, former head of the National Bank, who became Prime Minister four years later, in 1999.]  Mr Oti gave me an hour of his time to explain how he wanted a fishery sector investment project designed.  I thought his ideas were sound and reasonable, but when I took them back to the UNIDO office in Vienna, they paid not the slightest heed to his suggestions and requests.  Was it any surprise the draft project was rejected ?  But that was typical of the ivory tower attitudes of some UN technocrats.  Also, to my surprise, my proposal to establish a tuna canning plant in Tema, was ambushed by a team of French consultants in Vienna (they were against any competition for the French canning plant in Cote D’Ivoire).  However, Ghana obtained alternative finance, and the canning plant went ahead and is functioning to this day.  That was not the only successful fish canning plant whose establishment the UN tried to block.  The other was in Fiji, but that is a different story. 

Another country in Africa that gives me hope for the future is Namibia.  Formerly South-West Africa, a German colony before the war, and effectively part of the South African state after the war, it achieved independence under a SWAPO government in March 21 1990.  Few gave it much chance of survival as it had a population of only 1.5 million, and was mostly desert, the Namib.  But Namibia went from strength to strength.  Its mixed population of whites, coloureds and blacks, - both Bushmen and Bantu, were surprisingly tolerant of each other, and the Government on the whole behaved wisely.  The fisheries sector was blessed with a remarkable Minister, Helmut Angula, who spoke six languages, and had written at least one book that I know of.  He took over when the fish stocks had been ravaged and depleted by South African and European fleets.  Angula set to work assisted by a brilliant fisheries economist from New Zealand, Les Clark.  He had the country claim its legitimate 200 mile EEZ and banned all foreign fishing.  The local EU Commissioner put every pressure he could on Angula to give European fleets carte blanche to continue to rape Namiba’s fish stocks, but Helmut would not budge.  “I have hardly enough fish for our own fleet, - how can I give some away to you?”, he told the commissioner.  So despite all sorts of pressure and threats to withhold aid, Namibia won.  The EU conceded, and today that small country has the most prosperous fishery sector in all Africa.  I reported the Namibia experience in a number of papers and newspaper letters which led a senior Scottish civil servant handling the fishery sector to remark, “We don’t want to hear another word about Namibia, - we are fed up hearing that story” !

I was also able to visit South Africa both before and after Mandela took over.  What struck me on my first visit was how many white South Africans were in favour of the change, and were ready to do their bit to make it work.  I also met black ANC members of Parliament later, including one who regularly visited Mandela in Robbin Island.  They too were interesting characters, though wary and suspicious of all whites, including liberal whites like myself.  But I found that also in the USA.  The black American of the 1960’s did not trust the liberal northern white.  He suspected, probably correctly in many cases, that under the liberal skin lurked a latent racist if the person was only put to the test in the appropriate circumstances.  My heart goes out to the new South Africa.  It faces immense problems.  How do you provide housing, education, jobs, health-care, clean water, and a future for 40 million disadvantaged citizens.  It is far from easy.  But the country had the most marvelous first post-apartheid President in Nelson Mandela, a man of tremendous courage, character and determination. 

Nelson Mandela

I enjoyed reading Mandela’s biography, but was more moved by the account of his Robben Island experience written by his former prison warder, James Gregory, “Goodbye Bafana”.   That is one of the finest books on Mandela, and on the forces at work in South Africa.  Previously I had read the series of books on the country written by Michael Cassidy, an evangelical Anglican minister, and many years before, Trevor Huddleston’s epic volume, “Naught for your Comfort”. 

Some tales from Cape Province may shed light on the difficulties President Mandela faced when attempting to redress years of racial injustice.  Under the apartheid government, black and coloured communities were largely excluded from access to lucrative fish quotas and processing or marketing privileges.  This policy was quickly changed under Mandela, and the fishing cooperatives of the black and coloured coastal towns finally obtained reasonable access to fish stocks.  But Mandela and his largely black ANC government had to contend with a white bureaucracy that did all in its power to nullify the changes.  It was a case of ‘government proposes, bureaucracy disposes’ !  When translating the quota allocations into regulations, they added a number of restrictions that prevented the communities from realizing the benefit of their newly won quotas.  For example, one community I visited had been granted a quota for abalone, but were forbidden from selling them to any other merchant or processor than the local white owned fish plant.  With that monopoly control on purchase, the white company could offer any price it liked. 

map of Southern Africa

Another coloured fishing company got a quota for sardine or pilchard to catch which it needed to buy a small purse seine vessel.  I put them in touch with sellers of a suitable vessel in Scotland, but when they attempted to buy the boat, with a loan from a local bank, the bureaucracy refused them an import license.  Other indigenous fishermen operated a few long line vessels for tuna.  They had no income for the 4 or 5 months when the migratory tuna left their shores.  So they requested a small hake quota for that season, which they would catch by using bottom set long lines.  This was refused on the grounds put forward by the white dominated fishery research board, that unlike bottom trawling, “long lining would be detrimental to the stock”.  The argument that hook and line fishing was damaging to the resource while the use of huge powerful trawl nets was not, would have been laughed out of court in any of the fishery countries of the north Atlantic!

          Cape fishing boats, South Africa            Johnny Issel, ANC MP, at the Cape of Good Hope

Together with a local ANC member of parliament Johnny Issel, I visited a black and coloured fishery cooperative in the Western Cape.  They were hoping to expand their operations from fish harvesting to processing and marketing, and were seeking to form joint ventures with fishery enterprises in Britain that might provide expertise and training, as well as assist them to obtain the necessary equipment.  We were well received and treated generously.  As we sat down to a magnificent meal of curried crab and lobster, I asked Johnny if he said grace before food.  He said no, and passed the question on to the Coop Secretary.  The man replied that he was not a Christian and didn’t know how to pray.  At that, one of the members stood up, a black man called John Moses.  He said he would say grace, and then proceeded to give an eloquent prayer of thanks for the food.  He had bullet wounds in his legs from attacks by white fishers who resented the coops newly allocated fishing rights and were disputing the issue on technicalities.  John told me that he was due in court soon to answer their charges, and he fully expected to go to prison, not that is seemed to bother him at all.  That was how things were even after the election of Nelson Mandela as President of the New South Africa. 

An interesting character who had an enormous influence on all of Africa through her music, was Miriam Makeba.  She was born in South Africa, and began her career as a young woman.  Now 73 years old, she has been singing for Africa for over 50 years.  Many a time in the bush station by lake Kariba, we showed films to the staff and locals to provide some entertainment on a Saturday night.  Miriam Makeba’s singing performances were always well received, and some young staff members like Aston Musonda, my stores officer, were enchanted by the good looks and beautiful voice of Makeba.  Exiled by the Apartheid regime in her homeland, she moved to West Africa for a period, where for a while she was married to the American civil rights leader, Stokely Carmichael.  She returned to her homeland following the election of Nelson Mandela.  Makeba is still active today though she has ceased to give public performances.

Above : Miriam Makeba, famous African singer.  She was already widely known and appreciated when I went to Africa in 1962, - and surprisingly is still active in music and entertainment.  She was once married to Stokely Carmichael of the U.S. civil rights movement.

African music is something special.  They have a marvelous natural sense of rhythm which is well recognized.  Not so appreciated, but equally notable, are the lyrics of popular songs written by African musicians.  The songs have a simplicity and a poetic appeal that I for one found fascinating.  Few of these simple African ballads find their way into the recording studios of the USA or Britain, which I regard as pity.  Some musicals and light operas have been written by African musicians.  One that sticks in my mind is King Kong, a rather tragic tale about an African heavyweight boxer who eventually ruins his life.  If I recall some of the lines from one song, they went : “King Kong, bigger than Cape Town, King Kong, hundred feet tall, King Kong, no one can touch him, - that’s me, I’m him, King Kong, King Kong.  A man of stone, a man of stone, King Kong, King Kong, he walks alone, he walks alone, King Kong, King Kong.”  That and many other pieces were acted out by an all black cast swaying and singing in perfect rhythm and harmony.  The musical was written by Pat Williams and composed by Todd Matshikiza around 1960, and was performed at least once in London.

Looking back on the colonial era in Africa, the picture is mixed.  There was reasonable government in many if not all cases.  Exploitation occurred to a degree, but there were genuine benefits.  Once the horrendous slave trade was halted in the early nineteenth century, European interventions in the dark continent were more concerned with trade and with strategic military and political advantages.  The Arab slave trade began earlier and continued longer, but today it is Africans who sell Africans into slavery, or abduct them to be child soldiers.  My namesake, David Thomson the historian, wrote in “Colonial Expansion and Rivalry”, that in 1875, less than ten per cent of Africa had been turned into European Colonies.  By 1895, only one tenth of the huge continent had not been appropriated.  He also remarked that it was a historical novelty that most of the world should then belong to a handful of great European powers.  I would not attempt to defend colonialism, but simply note that since 1950, the last 25 to 30 years of Britain’s colonial era was marked by decency and justice for the most part.

Mary Slessor of Dundee, the indomitable missionary who saved the lives of countless numbers of children and mothers in Calabar, Nigeria.  On the right : her the grave by the river, Calabar.  Outside the local university there is a statue of her above the roundabout with twin babies on her knees to recall how she stopped the practice of infanticide.

The major colonizing countries were France, Britain, Germany, Portugal, Belgium and Italy, though Spain also held territory in West Africa.  Dutch Boer farmers set up the independent entities of Transvaal and the Orange Free State in South Africa. The senseless Boer war was a result of British refusal to recognize the Boer governments.  Early clamour to grant independence to colonial lands occurred in 1860 -1870, then grew rapidly after WW2.  Mostly the handover of power went smoothly except in a few sad cases like the Congo, Algeria, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe; (interestingly, - respective examples of Belgian, French, Portuguese and British rule). 

Since obtaining independece a disappointingly large number of black African governments have displayed corruption and callous brutality beyond that of any colonial regime, apart from South Africa where a white minority maintained a brutal police state to suppress dissent and enforce apartheid.  Non-Arab or non-Muslim black Africans were also mistreated by the regimes in power in the Sudan and some neighbouring states.   It did not help matters that during the era of decolonization, Africa was caught up in the cold war power struggle between east and west, and in the brutal attempts by the old South Africa, to destabilize black governments and support mercenary-led insurgencies.   

Brutality, Interference and Manipulation

Petty tyrants, supported by either the east or the west, emerged to inflict appalling cruelty on their own people.  Tribal loyalties and differences were exploited by callous leaders to bolster their grip on power.  Mobutu in Zaire, the former and present Congo, was typical of the worst of those supported by the west.  While his people remained at poverty level, he amassed over a billion dollars.  In Uganda, Idi Amin exhibited the worst traits of brutal rule and ethnic cleansing.  When he was eventually ejected from the country, he was granted life-long safety and comfort in Saudi Arabia.  A different fate was reserved for Moise Tshombe of the Katanga secession in the Congo.  His erstwhile European backers washed their hands of him and acquiesced with USA and UN support for Mobutu.  He was taken off a flight headed back to Africa, but which was forced to land in Algeria, where he was incarcerated and eventually died in prison.  No European government lifted a finger to help him though his brief rule in Katanga was efficient and civilized.  I visited the Katanga during a trip to lake Mweru, and was impressed by all I saw there.  The local priest gave us hospitality as did the nuns at a local hospital.  Before we left, the French and Bemba - speaking  students of a fishery school, all in bright sailor uniforms, linked arms and sung to us “my bonnie lies over the ocean”.  I often wondered after what became of them.  The UN troops under Connor Cruise O’Brien were not far away. 

The atrocities in the Congo were to be out-done by more appalling massacres in Rwanda and Burundi, and by the manipulated deaths by starvation of hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia, and also in the Sudan and Somalia.  The wars in Angola and Mozambique were fomented by western powers in cooperation with apartheid South Africa.  The dreadful Biafra war in south-eastern Nigeria was over control of the oil wealth, and illustrated the sad effects of colonial powers having carved out “countries” in Africa, with almost no consideration given to ethnic or religious differences.   The ‘borders’ issue is not solely to blame for Africa’s troubles, but it has been a significant factor in its instability.

I visited Biafra much later, on assignments for the Shell Oil Company and the Petroleum Trust Fund, and spoke to several local persons who had some memory of the conflict and the accompanying famine.  But my interest went back farther to the work of a Scots missionary lady, Mary Slessor from Dundee, whose picture is on the current Clydesdale Bank ten pound note.  She built up a pioneering work of schools and hospitals at Calabar, and is credited with ending the tribal practice of killing at least one of any twin babies that were born.  There is a statue of her on a monument above the roundabout outside the University there.  Appropriately, she is seated, with a set of twins, one on each knee.

Smoked fish in a West African market.  It takes a cubic metre of wood to smoke one tonne of fish.  There are half a million tones of fish smoked this way in West Africa.  This adds greatly to the demand for fuel wood.

map of Central Africa

Uganda’s sad history

Among the lands that suffered dreadfully from corrupt and despotic rulers, Uganda stands out, having gone through a period of brutality and slaughter from 1965 to 1985 under the alternate rule of two despots.  Milton Obote, (1924 – 2005) who led the country from independence in 1962 till his overthrow in 1985, was surpassed in his cruelty and mismanagement only by his own army chief, Idi Amin, (1925 – 2003), who deposed Obote and controlled the country from 1971 to 1979.

Obote was a northerner, of the Langi tribe, part of the the Nilotic people.  Amin was from the southern kingdom of Buganda located around Kampala.  The two men set up a lucrative business smuggling gold and ivory from neighbouring Congo.  This was denounced by King Frederick Mutasa II of Buganda.  Obote dismissed his government in 1966 and made himself president for life.  On Obote’s instructions, Amin destroyed King Freddie’s palace and murdered 200 of his staff and bodyguards. The two dictators grew suspicious of each other, and when Obote tried to have Amin arrested, his army chief took control and executed Obote’s supporters.

Over the next nine years, an estimated half a million Ugandans were to perish under Amin’s brutal rule.  He sent most of Uganda’s Asians into exile, the people who ran most of the trading stores and service companies in the country.  This action crippled the economy.  Then in 1976 he gave refuge to Arab hijackers who had taken over an Israeli flight.  But the Israeli army and air force landed at night and rescued the passengers, killing the hijackers in the process.  In 1978 Amin invaded the Kayera river territory of Tanzania, prompting the Tanzanians to respond with a 45,000 strong army counter invasion which drove Amin out of the country, first to Libya and later to Saudi Arabia where he eventually died. 

Amin’s expulsion did not end the suffering of Ugandans.  President Obote was restored to power. He reactivated Amin’s horrid State Research Bureau which continued to perpetrate atrocities for the next five years.  Another half million Ugandans were to die under Obote’s second regime.  He was eventually deposed by Acholi soldiers (from a northern tribe that Obote had denied senior military posts to award them to his own Langi tribe troops).  In June 1968, Obote fled into exile in Zambia.  He died in South Africa in 2005. 

Today, Uganda still suffers.   To the north-east are the ‘Karamajong’, cattle-rustling tribes people who can descend to murder of villagers at times.  To the east lies Democratic Congo, and over there from the SE Ugandan border, there is a haven for a bunch of warring rebel groups from Rwanda, the Congo, and Uganda, who make forays into Uganda, but are repulsed by the UPDF the Ugandan army.  Chief among the internal rebel groups is the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ which is reckoned to be among the most ruthless of armed bodies in Africa, that force children into service in their mindless slaughter, robbery and abuse of poor village people in areas the army can barely protect.  Around 20,000 children are believed to have been abducted to date.  They now attack NGOs, even in southern Sudan, where they are fiercely opposed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.  Simon Wunderli, a Swiss family friend, flies mercy missions into the troubled areas every week.  Speaking of the displaced persons camps, and the rehabilitation centres for former child soldiers, he says one abiding impression grieves him most :  It’s the void in their eyes, the lack of any glimmer of joy or hope, the dullness of having seen things that nobody ought to see in a life time.”

The current President, Yoweri Museveni, continues to govern a one-party state.  Some fear that his regime is developing features sadly similar to those of his predecessors’ misrule.

Apart from the brutality, corruption and mis-rule of many of its governments, Africa faces a horrendous problem of destruction of its environment.  This relates in part to the survival mentality of the people, and the practice of traditional ‘slash and burn’ agriculture that is practiced all over the continent.  In consequence, deforestation proceeds apace, with soil erosion and desertification in its wake.  The deserts are expanding by leaps and bounds.  Former water bodies like Lake Chad, are now dried up holes.  The need for firewood and for new fields to grow maize or millet, keeps the bush destruction proceeding relentlessly.  In our development projects we placed great emphasis on fuel conservation and use of alternative fuels and energy.  We advocated planting and operation of sustainable woodlots that could maintain families and provide fuel and food, and prevent soil erosion.  But these ideas were rarely given the seriousness they merited from either African governments or UN Agencies.  I even advocated temporary import of cheap wood fuel from South America to give time for African woodlots to be established.  But no, no one saw any merit in that, and so the environmental destruction continued.

map of Southern Africa

One cannot help comparing the attitudes and behaviour of Asian farmers with those in Africa.  Asia has its environmental problems too, but the beautiful and complex tiers of rice fields and water channels one observes from Bali to China and India, are the obvious results of generations of painstaking investment in the future.  Africans have rarely enjoyed the luxury of long-term horizons.  They are too concerned about where tomorrow’s meal will come from.  They may be dead next year, so why conserve ?  Their prime concern is survival, so they feel they cannot afford the luxury of investing in a future they may not live to see.  And so they consume the seed corn of the future as they strip the forests for fuel-wood, and fail to protect, replenish and enrich the soil.  I see little attempt to reverse this fatal direction, by either national governments or aid organizations.  Most of the staff members I know in the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, have given up on Africa.  The oft-repeated description is that it is “a basket case”.  The only Asian country they say that of is Bangladesh. 

Some states in Africa are in a mess because of external interference as much as local failure.  I put Zimbabwe in that category.  President Mugabe is brutally ruining the country to grab land for his supporters and so hang on to power.  But he is able to do that and to gain a measure of support from the blacks because the white settlers and the British Government have together failed to address a problem that has been crying out for a solution for over 50 years.  Since the time of Cecil Rhodes, the land has been viewed as ‘belonging’ to the colonials who took possession of it and settled there in the benign climate.  True, they developed efficient tobacco and maize farms, livestock ranches and orchards, game parks and safari resorts, - but it was all 90 % white owned.  Had there been a genuine effort since Ian Smith’s time, or even after Mugabe first came to power, to equip and empower and train local farmers to take over agricultural land in small stages, then perhaps much of the bloodshed and violence might have been avoided.  Perhaps. 

My own impressions of Southern Rhodesia as it was in the early 1960’s is that it had the mildest, most placid population of Africans in the region, but also some of the most ignorant and prejudiced “poor whites” I ever came across.   The problem of maintaining secure employment for the poor whites was one that concerned the white governments in both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa.  Harold Wilson had first hand exposure to the mean, uncultured bigotry of some of the whites in Rhodesia which he visited in October 1965 in an attempt to avert the state breaking away from the Commonwealth.  After dinner at Ian Smith’s residence, guests had to sit through a rude, racist speech by a high-ranking expatriate, Lord Graham, the Duke of Montrose, who related a stream of smutty stories, all expressive of racial contempt for black people.  Wilson later spoke of those represented by Smith, Montrose and their cronies, as, “that land-locked, introvert community”. 

Zimbabwe police in action

             Harare dwellers evicted from their homes                    take-over of a Zimbabwean farm

The sad lot of displaced persons

However, the present collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy is due directly to Mugabe’s mismanagement of the economy on a massive scale.  He has killed the few industries that were generating income and creating jobs, and has printed money in large amounts to pay the army that keeps him in power, thus eroding the value of the little savings his people had.  The land reclamation programme that could have been represented as a good form of wealth distribution, has turned out to be a way of satisfying his cronies who have shown zero skills in farm management, and a greater propensity to exploit workers than was ever exhibited by the white farmers.  Robert Guest visited one of the confiscated farms.  The new owner, a friend of Mugabe’s wife, had evicted hundreds of black farm workers, and had their houses ransacked to steal the severance payments that their previous white employer was forced to give them before he was driven off.

Take Sierra Leone, that has mineral resources and a productive land, a natural seaport, and a strategic position for trade, - it could be the ‘South Africa’ of West Africa.   It was once self-sufficient in rice.  Its diamond mines rival those of South Africa, and its fisheries could rival those of Namibia and Ghana.  But it lies today, in abject poverty, with no government worthy of the name, no security, and apparently, no future.  Liberia is in a similar mess.  Yet those two states were to be shining examples of freedom and progress as they were selected to be the homes of former slaves returned to Africa.  The Congo and Angola are other states that have enormous oil wealth but are languishing in poverty, corruption, lawlessness and insurrection.  What went wrong, and can anything be done? 

Could a new form of colonialism give them stability and set them on a course for prosperity.  I once thought it might.  But the interference of western powers in other countries throughout the world, the past thirty years, from Vietnam to Iraq, has been almost totally disastrous.  So I doubt if it would be any different in West Africa.  It would be wonderful if the global arms industry could be prevented from selling any guns or ammunition to the continent of Africa, - it would certainly help - but it would be a vain hope.  As vain perhaps as the hope that the rich countries would pay a decent price for the raw produce and materials they import from Africa.   

Below : about to board a flight up the Mozambican coast, May 1993

a beach in beautiful Mozambique

I have thought long and hard about the region’s debt, and whether it should just be written off in a glorious international “year of jubilee”.  But would Africa’s corrupt rulers then use the new liquidity to buy medicines and school books ?  I doubt it.  More likely it would be spent on luxury cars, palatial mansions, and trips abroad, - if not also on weapons of repression.  So there needs to be corresponding mechanisms and safeguards, along with the removal of debt, in order to ensure that the new liquidity will not be abused.  But that will be far from easy.  However, as discussed later, I believe that our national and global financial systems are all biased in favour of the money lender and the land owner.  As in the gambling casino, or the game of Monopoly, the banker always wins.

After considering things at length, and examining all the evidence, it appears to me that the best assistance Africa has enjoyed over the years, is not what came from the World Bank or the EU, or from the U.N. as good as some of its aid has been, but rather what has been provided in small amounts and in simple projects by charities and missions and NGOs who were all working on very modest budgets.  Where would Africa be today if it had not had the thousands of mission schools and hospitals ? – a lot worse off than it is.  When I was in Zambia, some communist sympathizers used to decry the Christian charity.  But I never in my life saw a hospital or a school or a leper mission in a poor country that was financed or staffed by Marxists or communists [That is, outside of Cuba or Russia or China, and there the assistance was government controlled.].  Never. They were mostly established and operated by men and women who had given up all thought of financial remuneration or the comforts of affluence, and had dedicated their lives to ministering to the poor and disadvantaged, - all out of devotion to Christ.

The terrible dark cloud hanging over Africa today is that of the dread disease “Aids”.  In some countries like Lesotho, infection rates are nearly 40 %.  Life expectancy in the dark continent, which was never high, has dropped considerably as a result.  A really fine permanent secretary we had in the Namibian Fisheries Department, died suddenly from the disease.  It made us realize that even healthy looking persons could be seriously affected.  Since drug companies stubbornly resist local manufacture of their remedies that might be distributed at affordable cost, and since it is hard enough for poor Africans to obtain or purchase even aspirin or cloroquin, the chances of saving most of the aids victims are slender at best.

Hope springs eternal in the human heart, and it is so even in darkest Africa.  There are countries and peoples that could emerge from the chaos with dignity and with the vision and drive to succeed.  Given two big “ifs”, some countries will make it.  The first ‘if’ is that they get good leadership.  The second ‘if’ is that they are not subjected to outside interference.  Among those states with promise, I believe, are Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, and tiny Gambia.  And, we all hope against hope, - the new South Africa.  But who knows?  The cards are stacked against them, and they are surrounded by immense dangers within and without.

Yet, despite all the injustice, cruelty, exploitation, and brutality, remarkable men and women of conscience and moral leadership have emerged, and made great contributions to the degree of progress achieved so far.  South Africa in particular produced three great men of such stature, - Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Trevor Huddleston.  It is fervently hoped that there will be more such leaders arising in the years to come. 

Desmond Tutu, magnificent defender of freedom and justice touched the conscience of the world, with Nelson Mandela. .    On the right with President Mandela, Trevor Huddleston, who laboured for years in South Africa, and whose book Naught for your Comfort,

Perhaps I could do no better than close this chapter with Trevor Huddleston’s prayer for the continent:

“God bless Africa.  Guard her people.  Guide her rulers.  Give her peace.

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