Monthly Archives: December 2012

On Violence in Congo

Jeffrey Gettleman has a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review on Congo. His writing is crisp as ever and the details are haunting. He provides useful background on the enormously complex country, including a bit of insight on the role of Rwanda in the conflict.

What I find most striking about his reporting is the description of the systemic violence Congo is famous for. Each news article I read about the country’s horrors bring more tales so awful that they are almost unbelievable.

The most striking anecdote was not the most gruesome of Gettleman’s coverage. Instead, it was this one:

One of the most frightening things I’ve ever witnessed — was watching a mob of furious voters attack a poll worker, slugging him in the face until he toppled to the ground and then stomping on his rib cage until I’m sure he died.

What strikes me about this story is that these voters are “regular” people. Not battle-scarred rebels who have been living in the bush for years, or soldiers whose conscience has been scabbed over by years of neglect from the government and watching comrades die in horrifying ways. Instead, these are everyday citizens, incensed at the miscarriage of justice and democracy in their country. Their response? Violence, with whatever tools at their disposal.

My wonder is about the kind of long-term conditioning violence brings to a people, and how they recover from it and create a peaceful society. When children have been raised in an environment where they are not safe in their own homes, and see gratuitous violence around them, how can even well-meaning parents instill a sense of right and wrong? How can Congo bring up a generation of peace-loving people in the context of endless war?


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Malawi to see $1B railroad built through country by Brazilian mining company Vale

I love seeing Malawi’s big news get play in a major newspaper at home. Although these plans have been in the works for months, it’s great to hear that they are set in stone. Not only will a railroad make Mozambican vacations easier, but a railroad to Beira will dramatically reduce export costs for many of the businesses we work with, helping tip the scales in favor of investing in new Malawian exporters.

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December 6, 2012 · 3:49 pm

Inequality and African Futures


Sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Simon Freemantle, an Africa analyst with Standard Bank, wrote into “African Arguments” about the binary views the international community seems to favor when it comes to Africa. On “Africa in Transition,” John Campbell responded with an echo of Freemantle’s plea to see Africa as its component parts. The continent is either “rising,” the great economic miracle of the 21st century, or it is “hopeless,” entirely reliant on foreign aid and intervention to stem disease, starvation, and war. As Freemantle explains, not only are both these attitudes incorrect, but furthermore, this analytical framework is dangerously simplistic.

Perhaps most critical is the necessity to craft more inclusive and equitably distributed growth. The gulf in income across Africa is becoming more pronounced, and the socio-economic responsibilities, let alone threats, that this gives rise to must be a central feature of future plans. While North Africa’s “Arab Spring” will not systemically spread south, political systems will have to become more nimble to negotiate the demands of an increasingly youthful, urbanised and connected populace. The risks, both foreseeable and unknown, that accompany these inevitable shifts may not detract from Africa’s allure, but they certainly imply that a more nuanced and critical approach to the continent is necessary.

Inequality within African countries has been on my mind frequently since I arrived in Malawi, and it is something I wonder about frequently when considering development more broadly. Living as an expatriate in Blantyre, the income inequalities are stark and obvious on a daily basis. I have been surprised to find that you can find most things in Malawi–so long as you can pay for it. The great global economic machine gets me balsamic vinegar, reportedly of Modena, in the supermarket here, and yet friends who work at the hospital tell me that the infant ventilators no longer work because the hospital cannot get the right parts from South Africa.

More broadly, however, the question of inequality and development should sit centrally in thinking and talking about Africa’s future. After all, seven out the world’s ten fastest growing economies are located in this part of the world. I was astounded to learn that one of the world’s five most expensive cities is in Africa–it’s Luanda, the capital of Angola. As economic growth continues to sputter in the developed world, Africa’s booming population and growing middle class, resources, and seemingly untapped potential are bound to lure investment and hope. That said, if we look at growth with a development or national security perspective, the question is not gross national economic growth rate, but rather whether the welfare of the average person improves. Unfortunately, the indicators from some of Africa’s current “tigers” do not look good.

Next door, Mozambique is part of the clique of African nations on the move with a +6 percent annual growth rate. The excitement about Mozambique’s bright future, fueled (literally) by coal and gas deposits, spills over even into resource poor Malawi with rumors about new railroads and Brazilian investments. Tete, a coal mining city just a few hours from Blantyre, is awash with Brazilian businessmen and growing at an impressive clip. It is easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm about this growth from even where I sit. Every other business owner I talk to is excited about the possibility of infrastructure improvements facilitating trade to Mozambican ports and the Brazilian money facilitating much needed upgrades to aging roads and train lines.

I was sad, then, to see a recent New York Times report on the state of the rural poor in Mozambique. As in Malawi, the average individual in Mozambique fits that description to a tee, eking out a living on a smallholder farm, farming a variety of crops in small quantities, primarily for subsistence but with some for sale to local traders and markets. Investments in extractive industries and their profits do not reach an isolated rural farmer, and in fact, might even harm his interests by degrading the environment, or as in this example in Mozambique, relocating entire villages to make room for coal mines. The result is that the poor stay poor or even get poorer, while the extractives create a new class of wealthy in the country, widening the gulf between the two. And Mozambique’s example is nothing compared to Nigeria, where the inequality is coupling with history to spinning off violence in the northern and Delta regions of the country.

I think Freemantle is right to note that  inequality in Africa will play into the political and security dynamics of the years to come, and perhaps even undermine the continent’s bright economic prospects. There is room for optimism still, as the Times piece points out, seen in the examples of countries like Bostwana and projects like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. For now, at the least, when I hear enthusiasm about skyrocketing growth rates in Africa now, I temper that by asking myself whether trickle-down economics have worked back home.

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Filed under Development, Security Politics

Rules of the Road II

One physical comfort I miss from life in Washington is the city’s gleaming metro system. I recall complaining about its wait times, and the fact that to get to U Street from Adams Morgan was highly inconvenient even though the two are pretty close to one another geographically. Those were the days!

Public transport in Malawi is a bit of a misnomer. First of all, it’s certainly not public. Instead buses are run by big guys who happen to own vans and their assorted helpers. Second, it is only transport on good days. Sometimes these buses just sit by the side of the road, or more likely than not, smack in the middle of intersections. I was on a minibus last week that ran out of gas, with ten passengers including myself sandwiched in on the threadbare seats. It coasted into a gas station, which was mercifully nearby. There, the driver learned that the fuel at the station, and well, all across the city was out. Good things my shoes collection here is nothing if not sensible.

There are two things I actually do like about minibuses in Malawi. The first is that I usually get chatting to someone on the bus, inevitably because they are curious to see a mzungu on a minibus. It’s a somewhat rare sight in town, and it raises eyebrows. The second piece I enjoy about minibuses is the names. They are all painted white, which is some kind of regulation, but the drivers have full discretion over naming the vehicles. They exercise this freedom by christening the buses with names like “Filadelphia” and “DC sniper,” names that have personal significance for me, though I can’t for the life of me understand what they have to do with buses in Malawi. Buses also feature sayings like “If God says yes, who can say no?” and “Return to sender” which leave me scratching my head wondering what I am missing.

This month I am borrowing a friend’s car to get around town. The timing coincided with a bout of fuel shortages across the country. My first experience getting fuel here in Malawi was, like pretty much all other mundane aspects of life here, more eventful than I could have imagined. When there are fuel shortages in town, rumors fly about tankers heading in from Mozambique and which petrol station is rumored to have secret reserves. Today I actually saw a group of cars trailing a tanker through town, waiting to see which petrol station he was heading for. When the fuel does arrive in town, text messages circulate the community about which stations to visit, and when to go to avoid the lines. Last weekend, my housemate and I raced over to one of the stations downtown when we got word that they had fuel, and were lucky to beat the crowds and only face a thirty-minute wait. The lines are relatively orderly, although the stations hire G4S as security to keep things running smoothly and hedge against chaos.

When my turn in line came and the attendant asked me to open the tank, I became very grateful to the security when I realized I had no idea how to open it. I pride myself on careful planning and thinking through processes. This mistake was not one of my finer moments given the thirty minutes I had spent sitting in the car just waiting for the big moment. I looked in all the usual spaces for the magic tank button, and no dice. I explained the problem to the attendant, who came over to the driver’s side and began helping me look. Before I knew it, about four attendants were crawling through the car with me, lifting mats and flaps trying to find the switch. The three door Rav became a clown car with limbs flying out from all windows and doors. In all the chaos, we set off the alarm in the hypersensitive South African car, just as I reached the car’s more knowledgeable custodian to at last get instructions. We finally found the button to open the tank hidden under a piece of trash. I managed to create a ten minute delay in a crowd of angry drivers and get away unscathed, with a full tank of fuel, and a marriage proposal from the attendant, who probably decided that this hopeless foreign woman needed a man in her life to set things straight. That, or just an owner’s manual for the car.

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