Africa: Bent out of shape

Nowhere on the planet are there countries as oddly shaped as in Africa. You have all those West African nations — whose kingdoms run strangely horizontally and vertically on the map. Tiny Gambia is stranded inside Senegal — and I know they told me why in school, but I’ve, erm, forgotten.

I went to Gambia; it is so full of good and polite people, who are similar to the people of Senegal, and yet different — and yet the same. Their president’s photograph hangs on every wall, he cures Aids and he looks utterly mad. He is mad. Should we be surprised? But at the same time there are so many polite and gracious people in Gambia who have such a sense of neighbourliness and consideration.

You have Congo: choking, portless and with all that ore. Kenya with its 40-something languages came into existence because of the Suez canal. The canal itself came into existence as a sort of distant security buffer so that some Machiavellian alien, who may have wanted to bomb the Nile and kill the Suez, would have to apply for a visa at the Port of Mombasa before entering with his bombs. Kenyans are the creation of a British empire that had overreached itself and saw threats everywhere. Liberia, at some point, was just a massive rubber plantation for Firestone.

There was no real intense colonial hunger for Kenya: it was not India, the jewel, or South Africa, the goldmine. There is Sudan, which makes no sense to anybody, except that it retains the shape we were taught at school. For reasons that seem old already, these shapes must stay as they are.

Next week, I shall be sane again. I shall rail against governance and corruption and elections and the evils of neo-liberalism and exploitation and other angry thirdy-worldy things.

Today, I am a bit weak. I just wonder, I mean really wonder, what all these shapes inside this continent are all about.

So, is “development” the shape that human beings find themselves stuck in? Can the United Nations be injected with cocktails, carefully mixed in World Banky, Davosy, Addis Abbebery places. Are such research institutes looking for the vaccine to cure the fact that our maps were quick, ignorant scribbles by mad explorers bearing fake rubber stamps they called treaties?

Is this the deal?

Have you ever wondered at the mystery of the failed state? It remains, in its shape, on the map, even after its government cannot live within its borders.

So, every few months, there is a new Somali government and then the leader has to leave the country. But Somalia must remain. I guess it must remain partly because its borders are defined not by its purpose, or mission, but by the fact that the moment you cross a border you are in another country, so you are stranded in your shape because your shape is maintained by the existence of your neighbours.

We go about having free and fair elections in Congo, and Somalia, and Kenya. We have this “language” for all these shapes, which diagnoses problems as though these shapes are all the same thing, full and ripe creatures seeking medical help. The X-ray says: “Aha, this is the problem. Take two and it will be fine.”

In the days when I deceived myself with the idea that I was a businessperson, somebody told me that to run a business just means to do the same thing over and over again. Someone else mentioned to me that success in “globalisation” is as much about speaking its language, integrating yourself into the “way things are done”, fitting the form and not asking too many questions.

We were drinking somewhere, a friend and I, and saying oh, you know, Africa’s great victory is that it has never really been conquered in the way Europe or Asia understands conquest. Not in the past few centuries certainly.

But recently, not Idi Amin, not the British, nor Mugabe have managed to command the will of their populations, by fear or terror or the vote. People fear Mugabe, but the maximum he can do is make them avoid toppling him. All that force, all of that force, for so frail a reward.

The recent phenomenon I have seen that commands the desires and loyalty of people is the Pentecostal movement and the Mourides in Senegal. They are building “cities”.

It feels sometimes as though all these shapes we call nations are mostly empty frames and a lot of noise.

But maybe I am just being crazy. I will be good again, when you next read my column.

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