[Written in Africa]
Some time ago a wrote a post about my joyless life, and commenter Vincent referenced a blog post by some tourists who came here and painted a brighter picture of our existence.
It was the wrong country due to my deliberate misdirection, but it makes no difference. You’d no doubt find similar posts about the actual country if you went searching, because some visitors really love the place.
We have a term for those kind of people: True Believers.
There used to be lots of True Believers, back during the separatist struggle and, most especially, in the early years of independence. There was a lot to be positive about.
Unlike so many other African independence movements, this was a genuine rebellion against oppressive outsiders, not just mindless ethnic strife. Various ethnic groups fought on both sides of the conflict and religion was not a major factor. The separatists maintained fierce discipline to demonstrate their moral superiority: they looked after PoWs well, subjecting them to nothing worse than lectures about socialism, and returned them home safely at the end of the war. The story for prisoners on the other side was rather different.
The fighters looked after their own. While Hated Neighbouring Country was bombing its own tanks in order to prevent their capture, and its commanders were shooting crews that tried to escape the resulting carnage, the opposition looked on in horror at the barbarity. Clearly they were a much better lot: 100% idealistic volunteers versus a conscripted, brutalized rabble.
Behind their lines they pushed education for all members of the resistance (albeit largely a bunch of communist rubbish) and tried to modernize life. They had some success in eradicating female circumcision. Women fought alongside men on the front line. While the war was largely ignored at the time, today it is exactly the kind of dross that BBC and Al Jazeera English would go for, alongside Malala and the Rohindras and Australians eating refugees.
Those few foreigners who knew about the fighting thought, this army is completely different to anything Africa has seen before. And when they won an extraordinarily unlikely victory against a much larger foe, it seemed like anything was possible. Finally, the True Believers dared to hope: there will be an African Success Story.
And at first it seemed as though they might have been right. There was a huge influx of foreign investment, building and repairs were going on everywhere, people were positive, there was an easy peace between the various religions and ethnicities, the economy was booming, the government was focused on development – everything seemed great.
But, this is Africa.
More cynical foreigners, and locals, had seen the warning signs many years earlier. During the war there had been murmurings against the increasingly dictatorial manner of the Boss, and the Boss had solved the problem by having the murmurers shot. In the peace a nice constitution had been drawn up, but it had never been instituted. And then the second war broke out.
After this very strange, bloody and unsuccessful conflict, prominent and respected locals, becoming impatient with the increasingly, erm, African way things were going, wrote to the Boss proposing a convention to discuss democratization and constitutional rule. Everyone involved was rounded up and put in jail for treason. Twenty-odd years later, they still rot behind bars.
This was about the point when most of the True Believers gave up. Some were still convinced that, underneath, the country was awesome, but that it was ‘just the government’ that messed everything up. Other TBs came to realize what I noticed about six months in: there are certain cultural traits in this country that lead logically to exactly what we have. The stubbornness, the belligerence, the ‘I know better than everyone else what they should do’ attitude, were always going to be a rough fit with modern, liberal democracy.
And so Africa won again.
But even today, we get the occasional True Believer. These are not long-term residents. These are tourists and temporary visitors like the ones Vincent quoted.
I’ve said it before and no one ever believes me: this is a lovely place to visit for a week. The weather is gorgeous, the architecture is incredible, the people are polite, and during the day it is very safe. The streets are relatively clean, the traffic sedate, the cafes are pleasant, the atmosphere is friendly – even Adam Piggot would like it.
But if you stay longer than that, reality hits. You get sick. The power goes out. The water goes off, for a long, long time. There’s no phone data. The internet is the slowest in the world. You realize a lot of the locals you know are effectively slaves, forced to work for the government, not allowed to leave the country, indefinitely. You can’t make bank transfers. There are no ATMs. It is illegal to import cars. Or anything, really. You can’t withdraw more than a small amount of cash per month, and that will take you all morning. You can’t travel without a permit. You get into a frighteningly intense and vindictive tangle with a local about . . . well, not much. And on, and on, and on, until you realize that in many respects life is a lot tougher here than it is in seemingly rough places like Manila, Phnom Penh or Calcutta.
Oh, but the True Believers still believe! We had one last year who came to evaluate our business. He’d been living in Nairobi so he was waxing lyrical about how it was so clean here, so safe, not corrupt, blah blah blah, how you just have to be careful not to disrespect the Boss and you’re all good. And he met Fighters! And they are held in such high esteem, they helped him get a travel permit for the beach! And people were friendly to him! And there was coffee!
And five days later he was gone, no doubt telling everyone back home what a wonderful place this is.
Indeed, this is a one-week Shangri-La and a two-year Hell.
No doubt there is occasionally joy here. Not in my life, but I’ve seen others smile real smiles from time to time. Life goes on, there are festivals, people get married, babies are born, there is drinking, parties and mates watching Premier League and having a chat in the cafe.
However, I am firmly convinced that this is one of the most miserable countries in the world aside from those that are actually at war. The only one that could possibly compare, in fact, is North Korea. I can think of no other.
But hey, maybe I’m a complete idiot. Skeptical readers are invited to set up shop here and prove me wrong. You’ll show me! But make sure you stay at least two years. After that, you’ll never want to leave! In fact you might not even be allowed to.