Good show on Talk of the Nation Monday: "Seeking Good News in Africa". First of all, I want to say that ToTN is one of my favorite NPR/PRI shows (I also love The World and Marketplace, and Terry Gross is usually good on Fresh Air). Neil Conan is probably the most patient and likable call-in show host in my limited experience of talk radio.
The blurb for this program segment is:
The next G8 summit in July will focus on poverty in Africa along with war, famine and drought. But some are calling for a broader view of Africa, citing its many qualities that go beyond famine and tragedy. We discuss how to balance the bad news with the good from a continent in need.
It is nice to hear more than just the usual famine/jungle/war/safari image of sub-Saharan Africa in mainstream media (with nude children as the inexplicable universal extras). It was a good discussion, and I highly recommend it. Some of my own reaction...
"Jean" from the Cote d'Ivoire called in to advocate decentralization of power and local allocation of resources, which is precisely what we need, but he also admitted the down-side to this as over-simplified formula. Often encouragement of local policy leads to fractious forces that cause tension and can lead all the way to Civil war. Most African countries are unfortunate agglomerations of numerous rival ethnic groups, and a heavy-handed federalism can be the only way to ensure unity. On the other hand such centralization is a huge obstacle to developmental progress. Whoever can figure out a practical solution to this dilemma (besides the slow, assimilating force of time and demographics, which is what did the trick in old Europe) will have earned the Nobel Prize for peace as well as economics.
"James" from Ft. Lauderdale had an all-too-credible tale of attempting to do business in Nigeria, and being defrauded time and time again, and permanently swearing off any sort of commerce anywhere in the African continent (bit of an overreaction, perhaps, but can you really blame him?). This is the simple reality check. We have a long way to go (especially in Nigeria) in dealing with fraud and lawlessness. Right now there is no substitute for local (and wily) guidance if you want to do business in much of the continent.
The last caller was "Kehinde" (I think: he never himself said his name, so I had to go by Neil Conan's suspect pronunciation), also a Nigerian. He trotted out a line that's all too familiar: why are we, the huge African professional class in diaspora, just sitting here and complaining about the situation back home rather than going back, using our local knowledge to help grow business?
Sounds seductive, but I know I speak for many others when I point out that in 1980, I watched my parents go home on the wings of just such idealism. My Father was becoming an internationally recognized Materials Engineer at the time, and figured his calling was to raise more such high-quality Engineers in Nigerian Universities. Nigeria at that time was actually considered an emerging economic force, and the public order and standard of living back in '80 and '81 was very high. We could have been U.S. citizens, but my parents saw no reason to make such a move. There were no barriers to coming back to the U.S. anyway, and we were committed to a future in Nigeria. As experience grew with numerous political barriers, and as well-connected incompetents took over local and national affairs, my parents realized that there was no way to even make an honest difference without outside the oligarch network. I don't think they ever looked to get rich, but rather to live a decent middle-class existence, while making the sort of meager difference that brings about basic professional satisfaction.
They had more local knowledge than I ever will have (I did spent eight years in school in Nigeria), and I can't imagine that I would be able to accomplish more than they did. By the time my parents gave up (alongside numerous other highly talented professionals), and returned to the U.S. and Europe in the mid-to-late 80s the middle class was collapsing with the economy, and the desirable destination countries were already putting up barriers to immigration of Nigerian nationals, barriers through which we Ogbujis squeaked through (excepting my two brothers, who were born U.S. citizens). My father immediately got a job at NASA, where he could immediately feel that he was making a difference—just not in the way he as a native Nigerian would wish.
I do dearly want to find a way to make a difference back home, and I'm sure I shall in time, but I really resent being scolded glibly: "go back to Africa, you prodigal dispersed".
There was one subtle touch in the program that I just loved. They played a clip from the film Africa: Open for Business (Flash site). Sounds like an encouraging film, by the way:
The world does not see Africa as a business destination, but savvy investors know Africa offers the best return on direct investment in the world—yes, in the world.
In the ToTN clip you hear Adenike Ogunlesi, a fashion entrepreneur discuss her (happy) experience. She starts out with the gorgeous, British-inflected English that many of us had pounded into our head in school (and that I have largely lost to an American accent):
It was the first time that anyone had marketed children's clothes like that...actually using Nigerian children. The response...people actually wanting the "made in Nigeria" garments...
And then, at this point, she subtly switches to a bit of demotic Nigerian accent. Not the pidgin language, just the accent that goes with it. All of us in the hybrid Nigerian/foreign college-educated class adopt this affectation when expressing a quote from a supposed Nigerian man-on-the-street.
"Where is the label. I want the label outside. I want everyone to know I'm wearing 'Rough and Tumble'"
I wonder if non-Nigerians would even detect that she changed accent (I suspect that now that I point it out, they would). If you want to check, it's about 22m 30s into the program.
It's often the little things that make you homesick.
BTW, for a superlative source for information about practical commerce in sub-Saharan Africa, see Emeka Okafor's blog "Timbuktu Chronicles".