About Cape to Cairo

Photo Credit: British South Africa Company Historical Catalogue

Why Cape to Cairo? Two reasons. First, when I first started considering spending time in Malawi, I confess I had little idea where Malawi was. In fact my best approximation was that it was somewhere between Cape Town and Cairo. I was right on that guess, if about little else, as you can see on the map to the left.

The second reason this title seemed appropriate relates to the history of the term “Cape to Cairo” and the background of my own interest in this part of the world. The Cape to Cairo was a railroad, a pet project of Cecil Rhodes’s, that was to connect connect Africa from north to south. Although the New York Times breathlessly predicted the railroad’s imminent completion in 1908, it remains unfinished in 2012. The project was, like many infrastructure initiatives in Africa, abandoned before completion, lacking rails from Uganda through Sudan. As I hope to see first hand working on trade issues, transportation infrastructure challenges are a major hurdle to economic growth. If the cost of moving goods totals about 70 percent of the overall value of that good, as it does in many land-locked parts of the continent, the profit margin shrinks.

Furthermore, I feel some personal connection to railroads. I spent a few years shuttling back and forth to school on Philadelphia’s own R5 and listening to early morning debates about how the only car my big sister needed was the shiny SEPTA train. When I started learning about Africa in college, one of the topics that interested me most was the growth of the Dakar-Niger railway in West Africa, and in particular the 1947 strike that helped galvanize support for independence from France in the region. The strike was later made famous by Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood, which I picked up my sophomore year in college as I began to learn about that part of the world. When I was in Senegal last summer, I was disappointed to learn that the railway there, once a central piece in the French West African export machine, had been reduced to carrying twice-monthly trips, loaded with passengers and warnings that riders might not be able to find a bathroom aboard. (I opted to make the trek eastward through Senegal in a station wagon, thank you very much.) Likewise, the city of Thiès, once a hub for the railway and the related unions, was not the exciting place I’d hoped, but a dusty stop about an hour from the sprawl of Dakar.

Someday I hope to do a deeper dive into the story of railroads in West Africa. In college, with the wise advice of TAs who had seen their fair share of unrealistic undergrads, I contented myself to learn more about the politics of Senegal and the history of the trade union movement in the region, which has been painstakingly explained by a favorite historian, Fred Cooper. Down the road, I’ll be curious to learn more about how the railroads were constructed, how their existence shaped economic growth in the region, and what happened to them and the related supply chains after the end of French rule there.

For now, I hope to use this blog to stay in touch with friends and family while I am in Malawi, write about what I am seeing and learning, but also as a tool to learn to write about my interests and shame myself into doing so with the pressure of regular posting. I hope to update with photos and stories of my life in Blantyre, but also with occasional commentary on broader news in Africa. Thanks for following…

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