Having lived and worked in Guinea, West Africa for almost three
years, that country is my yardstick for the developing world.
Both similarities and differences were apparent upon arrival in
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital. The differences are fairly
superficial, and mainly positive: No hassling touts looking to
rip you off on fares from the airport, no inspectors stopping
to rifle through your bags just for a chance to supplement their
meager income. Stoplights -- not only do they have them, but they
heed them. Orderly traffic – even if it is on the wrong
side of the road, British be damned. By the time I stop trying
to climb in on the driver’s (right) side of the car, and
start looking to my left to see if anything’s coming, it
will be time to go home and retrain my brain all over again.
While Tanzania is nowhere compared to Kenya, its far more developed,
touristed and Anglicized neighbor, it’s all relative --
in comparison to Tanzania, Guinea isn’t even on the map.
Here at least there is some entrepreneurship and investment, a
viable agricultural export sector, from coffee to cashews, and
a fairly happening tourism industry. So its stock market looks
like an old trading post from the Wild West – at least it
has one. In contrast, little is made in Guinea that doesn’t
grow naturally, and tourism consists of a few dreadlocked dancers
& drummers that follow their teachers there for camps in the
I know I can only see the forest and not the trees, as there is
much lost on me as an outsider. But in many ways, Africa is Africa
is Africa. Such a vast place, and yet there is a common spirit
and approach to life from one region to another, other than perhaps
North Africa, whose inhabitants don’t even consider themselves
African. On no other continent will you find people so laid-back,
friendly, generous, patient, and fun-loving. In contrast, grotesque
poverty, illness and overall hardship – not to mention untrustworthy
maps and menus – are also endemic to Africa.
Like French, English and the other languages of the conquerors,
Swahili itself is a uniting language here, given that Tanzania
has some 120 different tribes and nearly as many dialects. Swahili
was originally a trader’s tongue that’s evolved over
the centuries to encompass a mélange of ancient tribal
words, Arab and English.
Being here has fueled memories of so many people and places in
Guinea – back when this was my life and not a break from
it. Familiar scenes of wandering vendors pushing bootleg DVDs,
libelous newspapers, roses and toilet plungers on pedestrians,
diners and drivers alike. That familiar feeling of being cheated
by a hot summer’s day that starts and ends abruptly at six,
courtesy of the Equator.
Same old caretakers with their little Muslim skullcaps and transistor
radios, sweeping their little territories with twig brooms or
else sound asleep at their posts. Same rampant corruption at the
lowest and highest levels. Same old power outages and rationing.
Same chummy expat scene, with its running and rotary clubs, international
schools, high-end hotels & restaurants, and expensive imported
supermarket food; dusty lives far from home brightened by a staff
of cooks, cleaners & doormen (a guilty pleasure I myself once
enjoyed, feeding myself the familiar line that I was engaging
in local job creation.)
Same rain-stained mildewing buildings, their decrepit paint jobs
contrasting with the spotless, neatly pressed button-downs, soccer
jerseys and frilly nylon dresses hanging for sale against the
buildings’ facades. Same peculiar fashion style I call “African
wannabe” – off-brand clothes made in China or Pakistan
and shipped to Africa en masse to mimic the Ameri-Euro look without
quite getting it right. The real American thing also comes off
boats courtesy of your local Goodwill. Entrepreneurs buy the “donations”
by the container at port, flooding the market with used American
clothes that kill the local textile industries and put tailors
out of work.
Same malaria-bearing mosquitoes that manage to find you under
the covers, despite bug spray, sealed windows, and frosty A/C,
making your ankles look like they caught the mumps and leaving
angry red welts that itch and throb so bad you will want to order
another gin and tonic, double the quinine.
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