Africa United

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 dry season.

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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