Colonialism and Liberation

The second half of John Ilffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent” is mostly dominated by colonialism, which can pretty much be summed up by the quote:

“Most Africans went into colonialism holding a hoe, and came out of colonialism holding a hoe, albeit a more advanced hoe.”

This one point pretty much summarized what colonialism brought to Africa. There were technological advances, first with the construction of railways and later with the mass introduction of the automobile, in particular the minibus, but as a whole Africa lost a further 50-70 years of development to its colonial overlords. Even worse, many systems were put in place which had repercussions still evident today.

In keeping with his overall theme – the struggle with population – Ilffe once again presents an interesting problem I never would have considered: Colonialism led to further labor shortages. I, and possibly most people, had always imagined a colonial world where the Europeans keep the Africans working in order to extract as much wealth from the continent as possible. Since Africa was already under-populated thanks to disease and slavery, the continent as a whole was already short on labor. When the European nations set up full-scale colonies they began to require many Africans to work in support positions, i.e. porters, household staff, etc.

Take, for example, my current living situation: Here we have three white people living in a house and our support staff consists of a maid, a handyman, a gardener, a fixer, a driver, and 4 guards. That’s 3 people supporting each white person, but that’s in a contemporary Africa where population is not as scarce, but if you take that system and put it in 1920’s Africa which is tremendously short on labor, and I’m sure the ratio of supporting Africans was higher than three to one, then you’re left with empty fields and starving people.

Ironically, the British recognized this problem only to have their solution backfire. This quote from Britain’s Colonial Secretary in 1948 pretty much sums it up:

We apply better health arrangements only to be faced with a population problem of appalling dimensions. We have to feed that increased population while they employ agricultural methods and ways of living hopelessly inadequate for such numbers . . . We must expect a troublesome period ahead. We cannot pursue development schemes fast enough to absorb all of the rising generation in useful wage-employment. We cannot get for all of then a place on the land and many of them would not wish it. They cannot on their present economies enjoy all the services which they begin to demand. They clamor for the benefits of civilization without the economic basis to sustain them . . . We cannot for a long time hope to satisfy all the new appetites of the colonial peoples and consequently there must be discomfort and agitation.

Once again, population plays the key to Africa, but for once it’s population explosion rather than decrease which is changed the direction of the continent.

Then we’re left with the liberation of Africa. In so many articles I’ve read lines about how optimistic the world was about Africa as it gained independence. Economic takeoff seemed inevitable. Nigeria experienced amazing growth in all sectors throughout the 1960’s and was a poster child for Africa. All over Africa countries were on an economic and population boom. What happened? Oil prices shot up in the 1970’s and in one way or another destroyed all the progress.

I quickly noticed that there is little to no railroad transportation in the parts of Africa I’ve seen. In the rest of the world, there you can’t go to a city without seeing a train track somewhere, but Africa relies on trucks and cars. I can imagine what a 5-fold increase in the price of gasoline would do to this place. For most countries it stopped all growth in its tracks and sent countries into decline. For oil producers, such as Nigeria, it brought wealth but the increased currency strength destroyed agriculture and manufacturing because they couldn’t be competitive. During the 1980s, when oil prices tanked, countries like Nigeria were left broke and without any other source of revenue.

John Ilffe’s book really doesn’t go into the brutality of the civil wars that took place over the past few decades, other than to mention that some of them occurred. Rwanda received three sentences. But the focus of his history is on the theme of population growth as the main issue in Africa, and war and conflict were more on the periphery. I’ll touch on these issues more as I dive into a number of book I’ll be reading while here in the DRC, including Bryan Mealer’s “All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of Ware and Deliverance in the Congo” which covers the incredibly bloody war here, and “The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacekeeping” which dives more into the UN’s involvement in the DRC.


Development: It’s All about Management Skills

I still remember the first time I had to fire an employee. I was only an assistant manager at a software store, but at the time my manager was running two stores, leaving me responsible for most of the operations. Previously I had helped a friend out by recommending him for the job, and he did great at first. But after a few months his attendance became erratic and even when he did show up he was often late. The day I finally had to sit down with him and tell him he’d lost the job was hard, but as the one in charge I bit the bullet and let him go.

Managing a project is about maintaining an efficient system that meets deadlines as well as stays within budget. When you’re in the United States it requires hard work to pull that off, when you’re in a developing country it’s almost impossible. Currently we’re having problems with the one of our managers who is both unorganized and unable to manage laborers. A clearing project we were working on ended up costing almost double what it should have because of both mismanagement and possibly some theft.

I’ve now helped to implement a new, organized system for tracking the day laborers, and we’ve realized that the only way to avoid problems is to pay them daily. This makes sense to me, as it’s how Mexican day laborers work in the US. But here, managers work them for multiple days, and multiple tasks each day. Then when it comes time to pay, there is problem after problem, and all of the documentation is so cryptic that it’s virtually impossible to refute any of the complaints. That cryptic disorganization also allows room for managers to collude with workers to get extra pay for work already paid for: This is something I suspected as soon as I began examining the financial records. What the manager didn’t expect was that I would be able to figure out his system quickly and adapt a new one which would negate wiggle room.

Now, one other issue is learning when to micromanage and when not to. If you have the right people who you can trust, then you can put a system in place and let them get to work on their own. Then you only need to verify work completed and documentation. But when a system is broken or has fallen apart, then it’s time for the Development Project Manager to step in and take the extra time to fix it and get it working, or find new people to take over the lower management roles.

Rape and War, Hand-in-Hand

The Economist has a very good article on the use of rape as a method of war. It’s a sad fact that throughout history customs of ‘taking’ the women of those who have been conquered are ubiquitous. While this seems like something which would have died off as the world became more and more modern, the stark reality is that it has been a constant in every conflict in the past century as well.

As the Economist points out, over 20,000 rapes took place in the Bosnian War. Over 500,000 took place in the Rwandan genocide. And in the DRC, there are villages where every single woman has been raped at least once. It took the United Nations until 2008 to acknowledge that rape as a tool of war, and one that must be punished. That seems like an absurdly long time to recognize something that is in the ‘no duh’ category.

As the charts point out, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest level of civil conflicts where rapes were perpetrated, but Asia isn’t far behind. The article does point out that it doesn’t need to happen in wars, as illustrated by El Salvador, where the militia got the majority of their intelligence from the people, and keeping strong bonds with the locals was far more important in order gain reliable information.

One fault I would point out deals with the Congo. A specialist points out that if a militia boss has enough control over his men to direct them, then he must have enough control to get them not to rape. This is a western belief that doesn’t touch on the root cause of raping and pillaging in the Congo. Soldiers may be willing to fight, but they are doing so because they know that with victory come the spoils, which is to say food from pillaging and rape. If a commander takes away those things, but cannot at least supply the men with a reliable source of food, then no one will listen to him and soon he’ll have either no men or find himself being ‘replaced.’

Do check out the article here, as it’s very interesting and provides a great background on the issue.

Response to “Africans: The History of a Continent”

Over the next few months while I’m in DRC, I’ll be reading a series of books covering the themes of African History, The Congo Region, Development work in Africa, and Post-Conflict Development. In this first response I’m commenting on the first half of John Iliffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent”, basically leading up 1870 when Europeans began to colonize en masse.

I’ve chosen to read John Iliffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent” as a primer to my studies of conflict and development in Africa. While Africa obviously has the longest span of human history, it’s shocking to learn of little is known about what took place inland from the oceans and navigable rivers. This is still great opportunity for archeological work, but the harsh conditions and numerous conflicts of the past century has limited the scale to which it has been undertaken.  Iliffe does provide a decent introduction to the great North African civilizations such as Egypt, along with how Christianity and later Islam spread through the regions, I found the key moment of change to be the arrival of The Black Death in the fourteenth century.

It’s rather common for people to now think of Africa of a continent that, like much of Asia, struggles with overpopulation. But this is a recent phenomenon. In fact, when the Black Death reached Northern Africa in the 1300’s spread quickly and killed off over a third of the population. Unlike in Europe, though, it did not vanish, and outbreak after outbreak continued to kill hundreds of thousands of Africans over the next four centuries. So, while Europe and Asia were increasing in population, Africa remained stagnant. Tack on slavery, which I’ll touch on next, and it goes a long way to understanding how the entire continent of Africa lagged behind the rest of the world.

The Black Death caused massive labor shortages in Africa, but unlike in Europe where the first labor revolutions occurred giving more power to the peasantry, the shortages in Africa re-established the practice of slavery. The idea that this was simply a western practice seems to be a common simplification of a complex economic situation. Many tribes began raids on weaker neighbors in order to pillage and enslave workers for their own fields. This practice was particularly strong in the West-African Savannah, where Mamluk warriors, skilled horsemen, could sweep in quickly without notice.

Understanding how this population shortage helped to cement the practice of slavery within Africa itself helps to explain how the practice spread to Europeans who were beginning to trade with West-African cities. When the Portuguese began looking for slaves, there was already a sort of infrastructure in place to service them. It’s rather cruel to look at Slavery through a purely socio-economic lens, but when you consider the need for labor, both in Africa and in the New World, and those willing to supply that labor through slaves in exchange for European goods, it provides a better explanation than the simply viewing slavery as something the Europeans inflicted upon the African continent.

Something that I thought of while reading through this portion of Africa’s history was how using Slaves as a primary commodity compares to the currently problems in Africa today. Right now, much of Africa supplies only primary commodities such as agricultural goods, oil, or minerals. There are few manufacturing or service-based industries here. Throughout the period of the slave trade, Africa traded for all of its manufactured goods using slaves, gold, rubber and later diamonds, ivory, and oil. While Europe was improving its manufacturing capabilities, African nations remained stagnant relying on outside trade for all modern goods (many of which were already outdated versions of newer technology, particularly when it came to weaponry).

In Economic terms, European nations were going through a period of major capital improvement, building a foundation which would lead to the industrial revolution, while African nations were only using their natural resources to trade for what was desired rather than innovate and improve their own capabilities. As the age of slavery drew to a close, this put Africa in prime position for European takeover through colonization.


U.S. Delegation Visits Ag Initiative Project

Today we had a delegation from the United States come to visit the Borlaug Institute farms and fisheries on the FARDC Base in Kisangani. The delegation included Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro, the U.S. Ambassador to D. R. Congo, and the U.S. General in command of AFRICOM. Over the course of the day they also watched marching and live fire demonstrations by the American-Trained FARDC Fast Deploy Battalion.

Overall, Assistant Secretary Shapiro was very impressed by the agricultural initiative, and specifically mentioned that he had never seen or heard of a project like it anywhere else in Africa. In a press conference later in the day he reiterated the need for the army to be able to feed itself in a sustainable manner and not return to living off the land, as was the method under both Mobutu and King Leopold. For 150 years the Congolese army has been taking their food from the people, and breaking this tradition is not an easy thing, but this sort of project is a start.

Our project philosophy is based on one thing: If an army doesn’t get paid, they will still continue to work, but if an army doesn’t get fed, they will rebel.

At this stage, we have 5 hectares of cassava fields planted, a 4 hectare fish pond stocked with tilapia and catfish, and 3-4 hectares for other vegetables. Last week the Ag-Company of the FARDC cleared another 5 hectares of jungle and this week they’ve begun clearing a further 5 hectares. Both of these clearings will be converted into additional fish ponds by the soldiers. Once complete, the total entire farm and fishery will produce enough cassava to feed a company of 1000 soldiers for a year, as well as give them fish multiples days out of the week. It will also produce excess cassava which will be sold in the markets to provide income for growth or other food items.

Next week, I’ll be spending my morning overseeing the clearing of the jungle area. Because of some corruption problems, we need to make sure that the number of civilian workers hired to clear the jungle matches the actual number who are working. There is a tendency for those two numbers to not exactly match and some money ends up in the captain’s pocket. While that is to be expected to a point, we would prefer to minimize our losses to corruption. Having lived in Ukraine for three years, I lost my American belief that all corruption is unacceptable, as it wasn’t too long ago that our own country had some serious problems. We need to understand that there is a way things work in some places. In many countries, if it weren’t for the bribes, it might take years to get a business started because of the government’s laws and bureaucracy. Here, it’s just not feasible to completely eliminate it. But watching over their backs will help to cut it a tad.

First Days in the DRC

These are some examples of my living situation here in Kisangani and not particularly related to the project itself. Tomorrow I’ll finally get over to the base to work on the project.

This is a poor country. Kisangani is one of the largest cities in the country yet it’s devoid of new construction. The buildings are relics from colonial times, many of them crumbling and abandoned to squatters. I live next door to Mobutu’s magnificent river palace; though magnificent can only be applied if you see a photograph from the past. Now, out my bedroom window, I see an ant farm of squatters ever in motion, and hear the sounds of their radios, at all hours.

As is a necessity for all foreigners here, we live in a compound cut off from the world by high walls with barbed wire and rotating guards manning the gates. Inside those walls we have a large house shared by three of us. It’s a nice place, though not without its 3rd-world problems. The power has been problematic, the internet is almost unusable most of the day as it’s incredibly slow, and there are some problems with the plumbing – at least we have water for our cold showers.

We also have some gardens, including a spice and squash garden which was planted last month but already the basil is usable. There are two parrots living in the yard, though they aren’t very friendly, a pig in the back who was supposed to be roasted but the gang got too attached, so now he’s named Sausage and gets to feast on cassava. There are also a few cats, but they’re on the way out. Beau, our project manager, just finished building his Tiki bar outside of my room, where we’re able to play darts late into the night.

When we travel around town we go everywhere in our black SUV, amazingly dodging the masses of motorcycles and bikes that are weaving through the city. Sometimes we come so close to bikes that they end up diving into bushes to get out of the way, though often the bikers are pushing the limits of the road themselves – usually they don’t know the rules of the road as they’ve simply purchased their license.

My boss also has a boat and likes to spend the evenings fishing — trying to catch the monster fish of the Congo. But weekends are filled with exploring the river, doing some tubing, or heading to beaches. On the river you can see all of the fishermen in their dugout canoes, somehow navigating the strong currents while standing upright in their tiny boats. I swear, if Africans could monetize the skills of standing in a dugout and carrying things on their heads they would be set.

The photos are of my house, including one of our guards and our gardener.

From Inside the Walled Garden

What’s most striking is the soil. It’s hard not to imagine this place a continent of bloodshed when the Earth itself seems a vast ocean of blood. But that red, the way it grabs and takes hold of your gaze making it something more than dirt below your feet. That red finds its way onto your clothes, below your fingernails, and coloring your skin, that red that whispers up in small gusts, whirling lyrically in circles, that red tells us: Africa truly is a land unto its own.

But today I can only see that land form inside a walled garden. My layover in Nairobi puts me at the Intercontinental Hotel, which is easily the most high-end hotel I’ve ever stayed at. While it may be lacking in a few modern features, it is the way it allows its guests to completely exist in a different world that that land outside its security checkpoint. One Dutchman, who I briefly spoke with over breakfast, told me while picking at his $30 English Breakfast: “I love this continent and I’ll never leave, but I’ll be damned if I set a foot out on the street.” Through the glass behind him I could see another man taking a morning swim in the pool while African porters began to set out the lounge chairs under the palm trees. Behind those trees: only high walls to keep Africa out.

A quote from V.S. Naipaul has stuck with me since finishing “A Bend in the River”:

“In the beginning, before the arrival of the white men, I had considered myself neutral. I had wanted neither side to win, neither the army nor the rebels. As it turned out, both sides lost.”

It doesn’t really matter when this was in history, I’ve been here for a single day and I can see the fingerprints of the white men and of colonialism. Before today I understood that colonialism was a terrible failure and a blight on humanity, now I KNOW that.

In any case, when you’re stuck in the Walled Garden, as all you Apple fanatics know, you might as well enjoy the hell out of it. A young British couple and I shared a taxi out to the elephant orphanage and saw the baby elephants being fed and ‘bathed’ in mud and sand. It was a fantastic experience and the donations raised from the daily feeding shows allow them to save the lives of many elephants each year.  They are so dedicated to the orphans that each handler spends every minute of the day with the elephant, even sleeping in the same stable room.

I wandered around the city center, shared a delightful cup of coffee with a Zimbabwean refugee who dreamed of going to a veterinarian school in America, and gained a few blisters from my new sandals. It’s a decent start to the next four months in Africa, four months of that red sand.