The True Size of Africa

The True Size of Africa

I first saw this map with friends at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York and loved it for what it taught me about the real size of the continent. To see that the United States accounted for West Africa alone astounded me. I remember being equally shocked when I flew over here to learn from the plane’s captain that I had as far to go from New York to Dakar as I did from Dakar to Johannesburg.

Along with Africa’s huge size, the second largest continent on earth behind Asia, comes an incredible diversity. The climates, crops, foods, cultures, economies, and of course languages, vary greatly between the regions. As I spend more time working in Malawi, I am finding that interacting with those outside Malawi in a professional setting takes some negotiation. This is because even counterparts who have spent their careers in Africa may not have worked in Malawi specifically, and each country has its own specific context and way of doing things.

Even within a nation, African states boast a formidable diversity. Over 500 languages are spoken in a giant nation like Nigeria. Even in a small country like Malawi the people speak about 16 different languages, depending on who you ask.

This map helps break down the idea that Africa is one big poor country with lots of guns and sad-looking children. It isn’t. I hope that as Africa gains influence and relevance to the West in the coming years that our governments will learn to take the nuanced approach that each region and nation deserves, rather than reducing an overwhelming diversity of peoples, economies, and states to one undersold monolith.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Presidential Jet for Sale

The welcoming parting receiving President Joyce Banda in Lilongwe as she deplaned a commercial flight from Johannesburg in October.

Good news for corporate executives looking for a bargain on a 1998 Dassault Falcon 900EX. You can have former Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika’s for just $13.3 million.

When Joyce Banda came to power in April after Bingu’s death, international observers were thrilled to learn that Africa’s second female president planned to be a frugalista. Banda told the Nyasa Times a few weeks after coming to power that she was open to selling the plane. Memorably, the former businesswoman and activist quipped: “I am already used to hitchhiking.” 

When Bingu bought the plane five years ago for $22.4 million, he told concerned observers and voters that it would be “cheap to run.”  Cheap came to about $300,000 a year–a huge sum in a country where the per capita income tops out at about $900 per annum. Britain punished Malawi for Bingu’s excesses by cutting aid by $4.4 million. The international community took the splurge as a telltale sign that the former World Bank economist was loosening his tether to the reality of the everyday in Malawi.

While the sale is a sign of good faith on Banda’s part, it’s hard to imagine that the revenue will make a dent in state finances. Malawi has a budget for 2012-2013 of $1.6 billion, most of which is financed by donations. $13.3 million is just a small slice of that pie. The president still incurs her fair share of costs, sparking the wrath of protesters a few weeks ago in the streets of Blantyre and Mzuzu. She does travel commercially, and has since she took office. I can vouch for this because Banda and her entourage filled the first class section of the plane on my October flight from Johannesburg. The fleet of luxury cars remains, as does the public upset when she sends them across the country ahead of her, flying over the line of black Mercedes to make up the time.

Perhaps this disconnect between the governing and the governed is inevitable in a place like Malawi where the minimum wage is now less than a dollar a day, much of the agrarian nation is hard-hit by drought, and the average Malawian will never dream of flying on a commercial jet, much less a private one. At the very least, for now, its refreshing to see a leader here come good on her promise. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

Leave a comment

Filed under Security Politics

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.

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Roads

Rules of the Road

As I was doing my research backwards and forwards before heading off to Malawi, I learned that the majority of traffic fatalities in the developing world are pedestrians. This was a statistic I read and acknowledged, but didn’t really understand until I’d spent a bit of time walking around cities in Malawi. The roads are narrow, filled with potholes and other hazards, the cars are old and poorly maintained, and people don’t pay attention as they should. Sidewalks? Streetlights? I can count their numbers on my fingers and toes.

The result is that being a pedestrian in Blantyre is a hazardous affair. An African in their late teens or twenties statistically has more to fear from walking down the road or using public transportation than they do from TB, malaria, or even HIV/AIDS. In recent years, about one-fifth of the world’s road deaths have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, even though the region is home to only two percent of the world’s cars.

I had planned to spend this Friday evening at the world premiere of the Malawian version of An Indecent Proposal. I’m really not sure of the specifics, except to say that somehow a number of characters in the Blanytre community wound up starring in the film, so the premiere at a hotel downtown was a big event in a city not exactly known for its nightlife. However, on my way to the movie I was flagged down by two frantic young men in the middle of the dark street near my house, yelling at me to stop the car. When I noticed a figure knocked out near the side of the road, I pulled over. The two young men helped an elderly Malawian into the car, explained that he had been hit by the bus that just passed, and asked me to drive him to the hospital.

I took this man, Joseph, to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. It’s the largest referral hospital in the country, and it’s government run, which means that if you are a citizen, you are treated for free. When we arrived, I fell into conversation with another driver there looking to commiserate. “You hit someone too?” At first I tried to explain that no, of course I had not hit the man, but failed to make myself clear with the language barrier and the like, so I gave up. Whereas at home I might worry about prosecution for taking someone out on the street, it is so common here that I saw several such cases filter into the emergency room as I waited. Most did not look as lucky as Joseph, who was conscious, able to walk, and communicate with his family when they arrived a few hours later.

Even though my perch in the waiting room was right near the ambulance lane, those vehicles were the one thing I didn’t see in my few hours at the hospital. I asked my newfound companion about this, who explained that ambulances are not meant to pick people up who have been hurt, but just to transfer the very ill to the city from the rural clinics. The two young guys who flagged me down to drive Joseph in weren’t doing “the right thing,” they were just doing what is normal in a country where government does not have the capacity to provide services like bringing the sick to the hospital. “Community” feels different living here in Malawi. There is no safety net beyond family, friends, and the American lady who happened to driving down the street.

1 Comment

Filed under Healthcare, Infrastructure, Roads

On the Fall of Goma

Eastern Congolese soldiers don’t rebel so often for the thrill of it. They do so largely for the reason that explains the M23’s military victories and its broader allure — namely, the neglect with which they and just about everyone else here have been treated by Kabila. While the capital and western Congo have enjoyed development, the Kivus, for all their resources, have been left to suffer. They rank at the bottom of international public health and corruption indexes. Indeed, walking around Goma’s dirt roads and years-old refugee camps, neglect seems a polite word. Contempt feels more accurate.

From James Verini’s excellent piece at about the fall of Goma to M23 rebels on November 19.

Leave a comment

November 28, 2012 · 9:53 am

Maternal Healthcare in Malawi

Today’s Guardian has a piece on maternal health in Malawi. Since I began closely following news in Malawi in March, I have been grateful for the Guardian‘s attention to Malawi, which is by all accounts a small country with little geopolitical or economic importance to Europe at this point. I notice the Guardian covers Malawi more so than any other British or certainly American paper, or at least has during the few months I’ve been paying attention.

I found two facets of today’s article particularly interesting. First, inherent in any discussion of maternity issues in a developing country like Malawi is the question of population. On this score, the news is not good. Despite the mind-bending rates of maternal and child mortality, Malawi continues to have one of the world’s fastest growing populations:

The country’s population has swelled from 4 million in 1966 to 14.8 million in 2012, with an average of 5.7 births per woman. At the London Summit on Family Planning, in July, NGO Marie Stopes International (MSI) pledged to double the number of women using contraception provided by them globally to 20 million by 2020. But the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) estimates that, even if the fertility rate declined to 4.6 births per woman by 2020, the population of Malawi will hit 26 million in 2030.

Malawi is now in a position where even the good news tricks of education and health, which improve the lot of the individual, are slow to improve society writ-large, because the economy does not generate enough jobs to employ the country’s educated graduates. Last week a local paper was headlined by news about just how dismal the situation is for new graduates in the country. I wonder at how much worse this situation will be in 18 years, when the population is nearly double. Further north, some social scientists have argued that the Arab Spring was in part due to the population bulge that occurred in part due to lifesaving technologies for mothers and babies, concurrent with a failure to adequately invest in generating new jobs to give the additional North Africans they types of lives they deserve.

A second aspect of the article that I found interesting was the discussion of health services delivery. The author writes:

The private sector provides 40% of healthcare in Malawi, mostly via faith-based organisations, such as churches or religious NGOs.

I wonder at the author’s classification of faith-based organizations as “private sector,” but that aside, the point I find noteworthy is that government services can only cover about 60% of Malawi’s population. The government is fortunate to be able to provide free healthcare, largely through donor support, to 60% of its population, the majority of which lives on less than $1 a day (or even less as the Kwacha continues to devalue).  This statistic emphasizes the need for public-oriented non-profit organizations.

There is a trend in development right now towards the private sector. The argument is that the publicly-funded development community has not achieved its objectives over the past 60 years, and that a new approach with a triple bottom line in mind can work miracles that the public sector simply can’t. While I agree with this sentiment, and in fact back it up by spending the year at a private company that works on private sector development, the gap between what the government can provide and what resource-poor Malawians need underscores the continued place for non-profits in development. Non-profits fill the gap between where government capacity stops and private sector profit motive begins. The fact that 40% of Malawians fall in that gap doesn’t mean they should not receive care. It means that we should be grateful that this latest development fad has not yet entirely squeezed out the role of the non-profit.

Leave a comment

Filed under Healthcare


Photo Credit: British South Africa Company Historical Catalogue

Coming up with a title for this blog was tricky for me. I am (a) not particularly clever with words (b) not one to take risks, not even with words. Then again, given that I spent much of the past two years helping out with a blog at CFR, perhaps it should have been easier. I was inclined to name this blog something along the lines of “Kate’s blog” or even get artsy and call it “Untitled.” In fact I started this months ago and just let it sit with the headline “TBD” unmolested somewhere in the web.

Why Cape to Cairo? Two reasons. First, when I first started considering spending time in Malawi, even as an Africa follower, 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, was abandoned before completion, lacking rails from Uganda through Sudan. As I hope to see first hand in my work this year, 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 West Africa. 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…


Filed under Infrastructure, Trains