What have politicians done for them?
By Nyasa Times
Published: December 17, 2009
In the 50 years since I was in Malawi as a young boy, life in most African villages has not changed in the slightest.
Before leaving Britain for Central Africa earlier this month, I saw the news that Gordon Brown was to place on the table at Copenhagen more than £1 billion in British aid to developing countries, to help them to combat climate change. The offer sounded generous. But could we, I wondered, ever really monitor how the money was spent? Could we micromanage its distribution? Alternatively, could we trust recipient governments to spend it for us?
In Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, where I landed three days ago, I passed a prominent sign on the outskirts of the city, notifying the public of the offices to which a driveway led. It read: “Capacity-building for non-government actors.”
“What does that mean?” I said to my companion, a well-educated Malawian woman with fluent English.
“We don’t know,” she said. “We’ve been trying to find out. We think it might be something to do with training for charity workers.” She paused, then added, half to herself: “They are talking to themselves.”
Truly they are talking to themselves. They are trying to say training for charity workers without using the words training, charity or workers. If C. Northcote-Parkinson (of Parkinson’s law) were alive today, he would be writing not about the Admiralty but about international development. And I find myself making an unexpected connection between that exchange with my Malawian companion and an earlier conversation she had had with our Malawian driver.
“I say!” he had called to her, to gain her attention. The rest of their conversation was conducted in their shared language of Chichewa, but “I say!” had caught my ear.
I’ve heard it used in Malawi before and since. It means almost what it used to when employed by the officer class in Britain: something between “Look here”, “Do I have your attention?” and “Gosh”. It has almost certainly came into the local idiom via our colonial officers in the days when Malawi was the British Protectorate of Nyasaland.
My uncle was a forestry officer in the central region of the country, and to stay with him one Christmas I travelled on my own by train (a great three-day adventure) from what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), via Mozambique, 50 years ago. Now I am back here in the sub-Sahara: a subcontinent I know well. This time I’m travelling under my own steam, with friends, in true rural Africa, a land I love.
Malawi is a friendly, safe and gentle country, welcoming to strangers, and not by African standards notably inefficient or corrupt. But what strikes me most — more than any of the changes I see in the cities — is how little has changed in the lives of the vast majority of the people of Africa, who live on the land.
Fifty years ago “I say” had entered the lingo, and if overseas aid remains centre-stage here for much longer, perhaps “capacity-building” may pop up in the Chichewa language too, as part of the idiom, along with a new political language of Africanisation that independence has brought. All else remains the same.
During the half-century in which Harold Macmillan’s winds of change have blown themselves — in political terms — into a gale, half a century in which revolutions both violent and peaceful have thrown off the yoke of six great European empires and all the colours of the countries on the map have changed, half a century of tremendous political struggle, half a century about which it would be possible to fill a whole library with works of political science describing, analysing and disputing the processes of imperialism, decolonisation and liberation … during the half-century between what I saw when I was 10 and what I see now at 60, life in the average African rural village is unaltered.
As a little boy I spent a week alone with my young brother staying in a remote village in Mashonaland in Rhodesia. My mother had organised this through an African friend, believing her children should know how other people live. That was 1959. This week I returned to a small village near Lake Malawi, where I went last November to write (for The Times Christmas Appeal) about the work of a small British charity. I am not exaggerating when I say, without qualification, that nothing — nothing — has changed for better or worse or at all, in village life. You could rewind the video 50 years and you would not spot a single feature that placed us in 2009 rather than 1959 — none, that is, except the lines of my face. Oh, there is, perhaps, one: the new pumps we were installing are of a more primitive design than the 19th-century style lever-pumps that used to be installed in colonial days, as these often proved too complicated to maintain in remote areas in Africa.
I do not, from this, conclude that colonialism was good, or that African independence has been bad. No, they have both proved largely irrelevant, hardly scratching the surface.
When we British marvel at how so small a nation managed to govern so much of so large a continent, with so few colonial officers on the ground, we overlook the fact that we weren’t really governing at all. We were just there. We were marching around, building and mending a few (rather bad) roads, policing (after a fashion) with the help of tribal chiefs and elders, and generally flying the flag. And on the whole, and for some time, the locals couldn’t be bothered to remove us.
Modern African governments in most African cities — so far as their rural hinterlands are concerned — are just there too: strutting around a bit too; mending a few bridges; sticking up signs announcing plans and schemes; jetting off around the world (as our Colonial Service sailed or flew back and forth) and suppressing opposition as our colonial predecessors did. Primary education has spread, but most rural children never go on to secondary school, and if they did there would be no jobs for them. Infant mortality remains, as it always was, unbelievably high.
From this we should perhaps draw no conclusion at all: for or against Africa. We should instead observe that in large parts of the world, and for billions more of our fellow human beings than it suits us political obsessives to acknowledge, politics hardly matters.– The Times (UK)