Last night I sat with friends in a run-down rooftop restaurant overlooking pockmarked streets and balding hills watching the sun set – again – over Africa. The smell of wood smoke lightly scented with beans wafted on high as we chewed at the over-aged calamari and washed the mealy shrimp down with vinegary wine. It was Kampala; Luanda; Abuja; Bamako or Kinshasa. And we were speaking of Africa.
“They don’t generate enough power here,” said my friend as the sun went down and the city plunged into darkness; pinpricks of light only for those who could afford generators and the fuel to keep them running. A mansion of an oligarch; the occasional bar/night club, filled with the omnipresent westerners – diplomats and aid workers and oil executives and World Bank technocrats – a motley crew who agreed upon nothing except that primal need to cut the boredom of a Friday night in Africa. Strobe lights and the pounding heard even high up and far away. Silence and pounding, the sounds of Africa; diesel fuel and wood smoke – her smells. “Why is that?” I responded. “Because they don’t have the infrastructure, the money is all stolen, and what little power is generated is siphoned away along that tortuous path from power-plant to consumers, the few consumers who pay.”
If electricity is a “right”, as the aid workers wagging on the dance-floor below say – that “rights inflation” in which they are engaged has caused scarcity, as all inflation eventually does. Africa is a repository for the failed notions of quixotic westerners – the hideaway of utopians seeking a pliant constituency upon which to experiment with their ideas; being chased from their own lands in annoyance it is in Africa they can find a listening ear and a willing hand, as long as they have money. And it does not take much money in Africa. Preachers and priests; libertines and the lecherous; the naïve and the gullible all rubbing shoulders and sweaty embraces with the mercenaries of forgotten wars far from home.
“What can I get you?” the question from the restaurant manager – a Venezuelan man who once probably tended bar in the crystalline watering holes of Las Mercedes but who has now made the unlikely journey to wait tables on a rooftop terrace in the darkened night of Africa. Venezuela, stable through centuries (if at times not entirely democratic) now joining the likes of Lebanon and Syria as one of the great diaspora countries of the world. Who has not had humus and pita bread? Who has not had a shawarma? Soon – you all will be eating also arepas. Will Venezuela’s great exodus create a storied merchant class – stateless people existing on their wits alone, hard and disciplined? Perhaps – state failure, as anthropology’s great equalizer, has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Once-prosperous Venezuela certainly had a lot of chaff.
The conversation turned to the future, for Africa exists now as a great leviathan in the rear-view mirror of my fastly speeding car. Not chasing me – for Africa does not move – but so massive, so colossal and epic and ghoulish (though at times – limited times – also extraordinarily lovely) that no matter how far, how fast we speed down the road she never seems to fade. There is an event horizon, old Africa hands (like myself) know, from which there is no escape. A great gravitational pull sucking us back in to engage yet again; a boundary which is expanding outward as Africa’s problems spill out from her dark heart and onto the beaches of an unwanting and weary world. Overpopulation, the culling of the animals, environmental degradation and mono-cropping causing hunger, insurgencies that burned deep in the jungles making their way at last into the imaginations of urban elites in London and Paris and Berlin, diseases terrifying and ghastly now on our airplanes. Africa’s problems are about to go global; what the Great Recession was to our markets – that moment when our “mixed economy” (with its central banks and its overactive states picking winners and losers) failed (though we have yet to realize it – more on that probably later); Africa will be for a weary global polity which can no longer make collective decisions clear-sighted and realistic. The anarchy that has come, the ordeal which has arrived.
Of course the gyrators on the dance floor don’t see any of this. They are too fixated upon their narrow avocation – division of labor, that primary invention of industrial England, has a dark side too which has given us a tyranny of experts who cannot see the world in its complexity but only through their single issue of worry. “If only we can get the terms of the loan right, this place could become great!” says the lovely young woman, screaming over the cacophony, and whose pirouetting partner responds only with “We need to kill the rebel leader.”
It is magnificent, isn’t it…? – our world, interesting and exciting and stressful and sad; a terror of existence against a life more abundant. Would we have it any other way?