“What will become of Africa?” That is the most common question asked by anybody who has spent any meaningful time on the continent. It is realism, not racism – that facile solution which is so common today in the minds of the know-nothings, a scapegoat that offers no real answers but only interrupts any questions, leaving them stuck like a jagged pill in the throats of people like me who have lived for so long in Africa, and who have the right to ask the questions. For we have suffered with Africans.
So too Anthony Daniels. “From Zanzibar to Timbuktu” is a travel book by Daniels, written in the late 80s as his sort of ‘farewell’ after serving for several years as a village doctor in Tanzania. Back then a lot of people, Peace Corps or aid worker or missionary alike finished up a season in Africa by making the treks across the continent. A former boss of mine went from Zimbabwe up to Khartoum. Anthony Daniels went from Zanzibar to Timbuktu.
The extraordinary thing about Daniels’s travel book – for me – is that I’ve been to most of the places he writes about. Zanzibar and Bujumbura and Gisenyi and Kigali and Goma and Butembo and Beni and Kisangani and Kinshasa and Maiduguri and on to Timbuktu. I’ve been to all of them. The thing that strikes me is how little they have changed. Daniels’s descriptions of the environmental degradation, the poverty, the ignorance, the corruption, the ragged dirty decay of everything – that is the same. Outside a few 5 star hotels and luxury condos existing at the inverse side of African entropy, the continent has not changed.
Except in one way – the violence.
Anthony Daniels could never make his cross-continental trek today. He would have been abducted perhaps a dozen times. He would have been murdered in his sleep for his shoes. The bribes he paid to get through, $3 here and $.25 there become five-and-six-figure ransoms. He might have been blown up by a jihadi bomb. Perhaps he would have strayed into the line of fire in one of the civil wars that rage now out of control.
Yes, I too have walked where Daniels walked. Zanzibar, on R&R from Uganda, much as it always was; there, at the beginning at least the entropy has not yet taken over. Stone town and Livingston’s cross and the caves under the church where the slaves were held. In Bujumbura I sheltered in a hallway surrounded by other aid workers as tracer bullets and mortars and RPGs flew over my house, a gun battle raging between the rebellion and the Tutsi army. I served in Goma, feeding centers filled to bursting with starving children. Bullet holes in the vehicles I sent from village to village on errands of mercy. Pulling a local woman off a Rwandan army truck before they had a chance to drive her into the forest to rape her. Running from a rebel attack on a market one step ahead of the bullets. I have driven the road between Goma and Butembo under the protection of two Canadian mercenaries driving a UN APC. Beni, under siege now by the Allied Defense Front (ADF), a Ugandan jihadi group linked to ISIS. You cannot ride the Congo river; my trip to Kisangani in a UN airplane, into Kinshasa where an ICRC woman had recently been pulled from her vehicle, raped and murdered.
Maidurugi where I also have been under the protection of three US Embassy security vehicles and 6 personal SSS bodyguards; body armor and modern weapons at the ready. Abuja, hostile surveillance and concertina wire. I flew into Timbuktu on a charter plane a few times, the first American back in after the French military chased Al Qaida away. A personal bodyguard beside me, an advance car with 12 UN soldiers from Burkina Faso and a BearCat as my chaser. In Bamako, sheltering in place with my 3 year old as terrorists attacked my neighborhood.
Robert Kaplan wrote about the coming anarchy, only a few years after Daniels took public transportation across Africa. He recognized that after the great power competition fell away, Africa would be left to its own – to flap in the wind, fraying as the weather and neglect tears away at the fibers that might one time have held things together.
Now Africa is in real trouble; the violence is spreading along with population growth and environmental degradation. I spent 10 years on the continent so I, at least, have earned the right to my observations. I have many friends there and have extraordinary memories laced with tremendous significance. I raised my little boy there, and I am grateful to Africa.
But I am not optimistic about what the future holds.
Incidentally, I also wrote about my wars in Africa, in a novel – “I, Charles, From the Camps”. It is by far my best work, but it is not an easy read. How could it be?