Sunday, 1 May 2011

Visiting East Africa

I am writing this from the shores of Lake Malawi at Kande Beach.  The waves are lapping loudly in the background and Liverpool just comfortably beat Newcastle 3-0.  All in all, a great afternoon.  We left Tanzania for Malawi two days ago and it seemed to me that a month in East Africa required some reflection.  Today is exactly half way through “Africa Encompassed”.

East Africa is made up of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania & Uganda and the only one not visited on this trip is Burundi.  I hear it isn’t very open for tourists (although Uganda hasn’t been so stable since I left, a bit like Syria).  The Lonely Planet “East Africa” has only a very small section on Burundi and re-iterates its potential for instability.  As you may recall, the trip started in Kenya and went into Uganda, Rwanda, back to Uganda, Kenya and then into Tanzania.  The first thing to note about all of these countries is the staggering beauty.  Sometimes when looking out of the truck window for hours at a time, you forget about all the poverty and basic living conditions – it just doesn’t seem to add up.

The geography of all of these countries is very diverse as you move from North to South, East to West.  Visiting the region during rainy season, the Ugandan and Rwandan countryside seemed the lushest.  This is fertile soil and the hillsides were beautifully terraced and the fields full of patchwork quilt crops.  Northern Tanzania felt more arid but the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti seem to provide well for their wild animal populations.

Entering Uganda from Kenya, things instantly felt more prosperous.  There was more evidence of industry (pharmaceutical factories, Tilda signs in fields) and the children seemed to be more consistently dressed in bright, smart school uniforms.  However, shoes to go with the uniforms only became apparent in Tanzania.  The vision of prosperity in Uganda was slightly shattered as we passed the slums outside Kampala on the way to our campsite.  Our understanding is only as good as the roads we take.

However, wherever you go, the children come running.  Their vivacity is rich indeed.  If you are walking they want to hold your hand and have their photo taken (and giggle at the screen afterwards) and if you are driving past in the truck then you need to make sure that your right hand is ready for some enthusiastic waving.  It is hard to say no to all the children looking up and asking for pens and money, but necessary.  Contributions of pens and pencils should be given to a teacher and contributions of money direct to organisations that you visit/come into contact with.  The odd football can come in handy though, particularly for young boys with good chat at border crossings.

In all of these countries, 6-8 years of primary education is provided by the government, although is not always compulsory.  Secondary schooling is fee paying and so the reserve of the well-off and beneficiaries of foreign aid.  University education is beyond the means of all but a few.

Small businesses were prevalent in all the countries but seemingly less so along the roadside in Rwanda.  Many of the premises are brightly coloured and have often been painted to advertise a mobile phone network.  In Kenya it seemed that butchery was a business that could be attached to any other – Hairdressers & Butchery, Hotel & Butchery, Mobile Phones & Butchery… the list could go on.  People are obviously enterprising.  In many of the tourist destinations, locals have been encouraged to focus on their traditional carving and art skills as a way of making a living.  In the case of the National Parks, this often provides revenue which replaces that previously earned via hunting or poaching.  Preservation of game parks is high on the agenda and sustainable tourism represents an important source of income in a region bereft of high value natural resources.  Beauty alone does not pay the bills.

Helen and I spend many hours on the truck pondering how to solve the problems of Africa.  Funnily enough we haven’t identified any magic solutions when so much basic infrastructure is missing and so many people live on subsistence farming.  One of the reasons why the Ugandans are so upset is because the government has just spent millions on arming the military but yet have not provided sufficient funds for primary schooling.  And food prices are rising... 

Having read “The State of Africa” during my month in the Middle East, I arrived in Africa feeling fairly sceptical:  so much corruption at the highest levels, brutal dictators, collusion from Western governments.  I’m not sure that my opinion on that has changed much but I have been overwhelmed by the beauty of these countries and the welcome from the local people.  I’m not sure that those assets alone can drive forward change across East Africa but if the focus remains on keeping people healthy and improving access to education then hopefully over the coming generations, lasting change can be driven from within.

Apologies that this seems a little rushed.  Apparently tonight is my last opportunity to connect my netbook to t’interweb until I get to South Africa at the end of May.  Hopefully I shall be surprised on the way but I doubt that will be the case in Zimbabwe!  We start the drive to Zimbabwe tomorrow where we stay for ~ 10 days before spending the rest of the time between Botswana and Namibia, arriving in Cape Town on the 31st May.

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