Africa, more than just a bend in the river

DanShotAfrica1After visiting Uganda and Kenya for a bit more than a week, I am sure of one thing: what I don’t know could fill an encyclopedia. It would be presumptuous of me to claim anything but the most superficial knowledge of Africa. This is true, even after I was fortunate to spend most of the time learning from true world-class experts in the Horn of Africa, courtesy of the fine lecture series put on by the Reef Valley Institute.

But I feel compelled to share a few thoughts. Gary Kebbel, a colleague at school who has spent more time on the continent than I, told me before I went that Africa can change you for life. Similarly, my daughter, Abigail, who spent a semester in west Africa, found that the place changes one’s views of many things, from ghastly poverty to the often-trivial things we in the First World regard as problems.

It will take time before I can tell whether my short stay in Africa – in mostly privileged conditions – will change me. My semester teaching in China in 2011 certainly did that, though four months is a lot longer than 10 days. But I must admit that I have a slightly broader outlook on things from just this short stint – a wider outlook on the U.S., as well as on the rest of the world.

So, here are a few impressions from someone who parachuted in:

First, life in Africa can be brutal and is, at best, a daily struggle for millions of people. Folks in the Horn area and elsewhere are subject to famines, terrorism, war and disease. The poverty in Nairobi and even in smaller places such as Entebbe takes one’s breath away. People scavenge waste heaps for recyclable material and then someone sets fire periodically to the dumps to pare back the volume, tossing off smog-boosting smoke. Many in Nairobi live in dire slums, in huts topped by corrugated steel, because it’s far too costly to snare an apartment. The photos here, shot by my son, Daniel, offer a glimpse of those in Uganda who are relatively better off.

The dilemma of such poverty in Africa is a riddle. When one looks at how China has lifted millions out of destitution and built a solid middle class over the last 30 years – after Chinese leaders opened their economic system to capitalism – one can only wonder why the same phenomenon hasn’t occurred in so many parts of Africa. Why have manufacturers such as Foxconn not flocked to the Horn to take advantage of cheap labor, building iPhones for world markets and providing jobs? Why have local entrepreneurs not done the same?DanShot2Africa

It may be that the stability insured by the Chinese political system allowed for growth and that leaders in the often volatile African countries cannot deliver that same security. Will entrepreneurs invest millions in plants when one can’t be sure of who will be in charge and whether revolution might unsettle everything? The last 50 years in many of the Horn countries have been marked by repeated changes in governance, with upheaval, cronyism and self-dealing by leaders, compared to which China’s Communist Party has been an oasis of stability and continuity. Where would you invest if you ran a multinational or even were a homegrown entrepreneur?

On this front, there are grounds for hope, though. The Chinese, as it happens, are expanding their military presence in Djibouti with plans for up to 10,000 soldiers to be based there. Can the capitalists of China not be far behind? Would Foxconn, for one, see this a great spot to escape the comparatively high wages and labor shortages on its home turf? I’m persuaded that nothing can lift the living standards in places such as Ethiopia, Somaliland, Uganda and Kenya more than factories that can provide jobs and income for thousands. It will take stability to bring in such factories, to draw investors.

How ironic would it be, though, if the Chinese, aided by their military, ride to the rescue and bring heightened living standards to Africa when longtime capitalists from the West have failed to do so? Indeed, the northeastern corner of Africa is awash in nongovernmental organizations staffed by well-meaning Westerners who offer helping hands and hearts in the region – and who do vital work, especially in health. But they can’t hold a candle to the roaring dynamo that capitalism has been for China, a place unhelped by NGOs for most of the last few decades. Still more irony there.

Second, I was struck by what life in a police state is like. Nairobi, in particular, is a place where both the wealthy and the just-above-poverty level folks live behind cinderblock walls and concertina wire, usually guarded by security service people in military-style uniforms who pack submachine guns. Heavily armed men are everywhere. They make for a dystopic panorama straight out of end-of-the-world sci-fi movies. One can have a wonderful life, I imagine, behind such walls. But who really wants that? Who wants to emerge to see squalor not far from the tall gates?

In the U.S., many people have electronic security systems in their homes and some wealthy people live in gated compounds or on estates surrounded by fences. But most of us live in open neighborhoods where one skips a few steps across a lawn to front doors and windows that would take nothing but a small hammer to defeat. That, to me, is a far better way to live than to exist in a perpetual state of insecurity and fear, unable to stroll around a neighborhood on cool evening or feel comfortable taking a quick run.

Yes, crime is a problem in the U.S. and, yes, the proliferation of guns is a true tragedy. But in Uganda and Kenya, guarding against theft or home invasion is a daily challenge that changes the look and feel of cities. Everywhere I went in Nairobi, I walked through metal detectors and had guards run mirrors beneath the cars I was in, and I grew inured to the sight of young people in fatigues carrying weapons that could take out a pack of attackers. In Nairobi, one goes nowhere without a driver and no one goes out at night.

Who could possibly want that sort of life? It’s no wonder that so many Africans look to the U.S. or Europe for far better opportunities and for simple safety. And, if one wants to see an argument against income inequality and in favor of the development of strong middle classes, just check out Africa. The gap between the haves and have-nots is a Grand Canyon and that, and the desperate levels of poverty, make for awful insecurity and crime.

DanShotAfrica3Third, the people I came in contact with were uniformly delightful. A friend who has spent years in the region said that while the U.S. and the West in general provide a “transaction-based society,” where people buy and sell services and vanish from one another’s lives, the African societies in the Horn especially are “relationship-based.” People want to get to know one another, not merely do business. Take the time to ask how people are doing, this friend said, and you will get by far better, even in the most mundane things. Security guards in Nairobi would see books I was carrying and start conversations about them, and not short ones. A driver and I had long chats about the importance of education, along with local and international politics.

It was extraordinary to see how friendly and engaging — and often well informed — the people I came across were, especially about the U.S. Indeed, it surprised me to have people fretting over strained race relations and the turn in politics in the U.S., probably a product of watching CNN.

Finally, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the Horn of Africa. Will the walls ever come down around the compounds? Certainly, in places such as Nairobi there is development, the construction of grand complexes of housing, offices and shopping in areas such as the Westlands, not far from the foreign embassies. But will there be enough, and will it provide well-paying jobs for enough people? And, in Somalia, we are seeing steps toward governance, perhaps toward reestablishing a central state, even as Al-Shabaab controls so much territory. Will the clans who run the place find a way to share power in the interest of all, not just some?

The daily struggles of so many people in the region, the persistent income inequality, and the troublesome politics make it tough to see anything but a slow course upward. This part of the world certainly is unlike most of what we see in the U.S., even in areas hard-pressed by globalism’s downsides. And it’s far different from China or other parts of Asia. One can only wish the Horn’s leaders the kind of wisdom and opportunity it will take to find the economic engines the place so desperately needs.

Idealism: a global phenomenon

Idealism knows few national boundaries.

Students at Tsinghua University and other schools in China would see eye-to-eye (better, heart-to-heart) with many in the U.S. on this. A 22-year-old grad student of mine in Beijing showed this in spades in a recent English-language speech competition. Her outrage at injustice, her sympathy for those in distress, and her hopes for change could make her a soulmate of my 23-year-old daughter back in Chicago. Continents, oceans or economic and political systems seem not to separate them intellectually.

My student – call her “Blossom” – took on Apple Computer, a company hugely popular in China. She faulted its reliance on Chinese suppliers whose working conditions have been linked to suicides, workplace fatalities and illness-inducing toxic chemicals. Her anger at conditions she branded “inhumane” was palpable and she was unsparing in her criticism, saying Apple had failed in its social responsibilities. She also took aim at fellow Chinese, bemoaning the idea that contestants at speaking competitions, blind to problems, have routinely extolled Steve Jobs for how he “thought differently and changed the world.”

“Blossom” went further. She faulted globalization, pointing her young finger at big companies and consumers alike. “Multinationals choose suppliers with the cheapest labor and the highest efficiency, regardless of their safety standard,” she argued. “Customers care about the ink of ‘designed in Cupertino’ or the Silicon Valley, instead of the words right below it, ‘Made in China.’ Globalization institutionalizes global ignorance.”

And she called for change. Supplier information – accidents, suicides, etc. – should be made public, she argued. Invoking Justice Brandeis’ contention that sunlight is the best disinfectant, she argued, “the multinationals would be embarrassed and therefore [would pressure] the supplier to change.” Policing by government and NGO advocacy groups should be encouraged. And, she added, “As consumers, every one of us can do our bit: keep watch for suspect brands and refuse to consume immoral products.” Indeed, “Blossom” argued that every iPhone should come with a photo of its assembler. “That could serve as a reminder that an actual, living, breathing person used their own hands to help make this product. Let’s give the cold technology a human face. We will all be better off for it.”

In fairness, I must note that Apple does seem troubled by its subcontractors. It applies a code of conduct to suppliers, audits their behavior and says worker protections and factory conditions have improved at many facilities throughout its supply base. Problems, however, persist, according to reports by the company itself, as relayed by the Telegraph. Underage workers, excessive hours and other problems evade even Apple’s efforts to drive change — something that may reflect different cultural attitudes among nations, as well varying levels of economic development. Remember that capitalism is still young in China, poverty is rampant, and it took the West decades to outlaw the practices that trouble Westerners and “Blossom” alike.

Nonetheless, I’m blown away by how like my youngest child this young Chinese woman is. Reared in a country whose values seem so foreign, “Blossom” brings a kind heart and a keen eye to the world she sees around her – just like my Abi. My daughter now works to help homeless people in Chicago get back into the social system. She supported Occupy Chicago. Her criticisms of global capitalism – which we often argue about — throb with an idealist’s heart just as big as “Blossom’s.”

As globalization grows and such young people take on bigger roles in the system in coming years, I expect they will bear the torch for change. I hope they do so, whether they work within or outside multinationals. While we graybeards may quibble with some of their arguments and solutions, their passions for justice and decency should inspire us all. Over time, life may cool the fires they now burn with — but I’m in no hurry to see that happen. And I hope the Ab and “Blossom” someday can meet to see how much more unites them than divides them.

China: land of contradictions

As we walked to lunch with faculty and a couple administrators the other day, we passed demonstrators holding a sit-in outside the Tsinghua administrative offices. Their placards told of how they wanted more money for the destruction of their homes, which was planned to make way for faculty housing. Our hosts, chagrined by the protest, nonetheless noted that this was an example of free speech. These people, it seemed, had a right to make their grievances known.

It seemed a lot like home. But, then at lunch, we got some friendly advice from a Party official who is a fellow academic. Be mindful of what we say in class, we were counseled. Chinese students, especially those from the countryside, give teachers enormous deference in this Confucian society. Moreover, with social media alive and well in China – through local knockoffs of Facebook and Twitter – anything we say may find an audience well beyond the classroom. Privately, say what you want. Publicly, be discreet. There’s a difference in China between the private and public realms.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But, what a perplexing country this is. On the one hand, it has embraced so much about the West. Just look at the soaring skylines in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And consider the recurring 10 percent-plus annual growth rates that put the U.S. and the rest of the economically turbulent West to shame. The Chinese are setting the pace for the world.

School of Economics and Management
Their passion for capitalism is obvious. The school of economics and management here is a towering modern compound fronting on the strip of stunning buildings that adorn a stretch near the main gate. Inside one of the several buildings, portraits of Nobel Prize-winning economists make a long line in the lobby – seemingly, all are Americans, including New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. By contrast, the university’s school of Marxism is tucked off in a less impressive quarter of campus, housed in a small, older building. I’ve heard Marxism is regarded as a matter of philosophy, nothing quite so practical as economics and management. Certainly, there’s no doubt who these folks want their students to look up to.

Merit is also prized here, whether in school or in government. To join the Communist Party, our colleague explained, one must be in the top of one’s class academically. The Party is for the elite, those who can lead the country, and getting through the application process is tough and time-consuming. Only about six percent of the 1.3 billion people in the country qualify for Party membership (a surprising share, even if that amounts to 80 million folks).

Indeed, the Party leadership is composed of practical men with impressive academic backgrounds. Some have graduated from Tsinghua, with degrees in subjects such as water engineering. The current president, Hu Jintao, is an alum. The children of some of these men now study at Western institutions such as Harvard. These are bright people who, it seems, take seriously the need to intelligently manage a country where vast numbers still live in poverty a world apart from privileged city-dwellers. They seem to want to spread the wealth and manage the growth of their country well.

And yet, there is a limit to how far western approaches go here. I bumped up against it the other day, when I wanted to shoot some photos at a central athletic field on campus. Large numbers of students paraded about the sprawling field in military uniforms. Military training, a student here told me, is required of all freshmen. Indeed, days earlier I saw similar troops of students marching around campus and singing songs of loyalty to the nation. It was reminiscent of years ago in the U.S., when students had to go through ROTC training on many campuses.

Struck me as interesting. But a fellow in a black athletic outfit thought otherwise. “Delete,” he told me politely — but firmly — as he appeared out of nowhere. This was arguably a public place, and certainly would have been considered so in the U.S. Further, he was not in uniform and didn’t say who he was. But I was in no position to argue. I am, after all, a guest in this country and must behave as one. I certainly don’t wish to offend my hosts, whose graciousness has gone above and beyond.

School of Marxism
Odd thing is, other military events on campus seem to be fair game. For instance, I was able days before to photograph a flag-raising ceremony conducted by young people in front of the main administration building. Chinese people were similarly taking photos. That, it seemed, was acceptable even as the larger parade was not.

So, every once in a while, I expect I’ll run into reminders that the rules are different here. As long as I am a guest, I will comply. Anything else would be ungracious, to say the least.