By Hari Haran
Trustee, AltTech Foundation

It’s hard to fathom the sheer size of Africa. When you’re in any of the countries, the people look much the same barring the fine shades of ebony that distinguish a Ugandan from a Sierra Leonean or the Ethiopian from the Nigerian.

Every city across the massive continent is bustling with shanty towns with people yet so full of cheer; they live in conditions that are just short of being slums. To a home, nearly all urban Africa hosts 4-5 people, with 3 to 4 children being the norm. Homes for over 70 per cent of the people are less than 50-70 sq.ft., roofs that are of tin or of tile, with the ‘informal settlement’ huddled, pathways barely 5 feet wide that take their bikes and motorbikes through cesspools of sanitation water or rainwater.

Accra has 28 million by the last count. It’s on the west perched on the Atlantic to the handle that juts out. Cairo has about 30 million. Douala, Ouagadougou or Dodoma, Bujumbura or Kigali … Africa today hosts over xxx cities of over 2 million people. Over 1.2 million live in urban Africa while another billion live in the countryside.

It’s a people bomb ticking away, with economic growth nearly everywhere at 5 per cent and population growth at about half that rate.

There’s a locust that is laying bare the once beautiful land with these rising numbers of people needing natural resources even if it is at the subsistence levels they seek food and clothes and shelter. And there is the rape and pillage of the land’s mineral resources that the Chinese are staging on a scale that puts to shame the damage World War 2 brought on. It’s a quiet decimation that is so staggering in the dimension that the world hasn’t even yet woken up to it. It is all legitimate. Mining with licences approved by tinpot dictators with little money and even less education on what they are perpetrating. The rich lakebed silt and sand that the Chinese are carting away every day with massive shipping carriers hauling them out to China for its construction needs is bringing rapid death to Lake Victoria. This the second largest lake in the world at 68,000 sq km is in the throes of death.

The ride from Kampala to Addis Ababa is about 1100 km. The drive-by bus takes over 14 hours and climbs from 1000 meters above sea level that Kampala nestles at to the 2400 metres or 7500 feet grassland biome that Addis Ababa is.

The sight from the sky as you go past the 10,000 feet high mountains that rim the city, or from ground as the highway clambers onto the flat bottom of the bowl that the Ethiopian capital is, is at once beautiful for what it was even 30 years ago, and positively ugly with the rash of high rise buildings that bear down on you. The Chinese hand is everywhere. The roads. The airport. Those tall buildings with no character. The water supply works and development. The mines and rights carried by a multitude of Chinese companies serving proxy to the insidious hand of Beijing. The tee-shirts and cheap trousers sold on the sidewalk.

Oddly enough you don’t see the Chinese on streets or in hotels. In the crowded market spaces in Uganda’s Jinja or Kampala or Kenya’s Nairobi or South Sudan’s Juba or Burundi’s Bujumbura or Rwanda’s Kigali or Botswana’s Gabarone, it’s traders from India who are prominent. Over many decades they have refined the despicable art of working on the vulnerable tribes and people of these lands.

When I saw kerosene listed at petrol stations along with diesel and petrol I could not stop asking around. People brought 5 and 10-litre cans along and bought this octane 8 fuel for their homes. 70 per cent of homes in nearly all these cities still have kerosene lamps and candles for lighting, and wood fuel and charcoal for their kitchens. Uganda alone has seen 30,000 sq km lost to felling — legal and illegal — in just the last 25 years. Coal prices have risen an average of 15 per cent for ten years. Respiratory ailments affecting the lungs are high with women. Air quality in the city faces a dire threat soon enough, although Kampala or Nairobi or Addis Ababa or Dodoma sport amiable weather with temperatures rarely going past the twenties.

Why the squalor amidst the seemingly generously endowed regions?? It’s not as if the pressure of people on the land’s natural resources is as bad as it is in India. For example, a Karnataka has about 190,000 sq km to a Uganda’s 200,000 (not including an additional 40,000 sq km of that massive water body Lake Victoria that shows up on any African continental map however small). But Uganda hosts now about 42 million people to Karnataka’s 68 million. And Karnataka state enjoys lesser density than a Maharashtra or a Bihar! The answer lies in the African people’s inability to transit from their simple ecosystem ways to the centralised urban systems that Europe has been foisting on them the last half century plus.

Belgium and Germany exploited the mineral wealth of Africa for a century and more. There was no literacy for long although the native African is richly educated on the intricate web of natural resources and relations man can establish with harmony. That is lost today in the clamour for economic growth with little attention to the quality of life.

Dakar on the far west of the continent is again once beautiful country now brought to her knees with a surge in population in recent years, thanks largely to migration. The Sahel Sahara relentlessly marches leaving little for humans to feed on.

Africa is clearly the biggest threat to the world. The loss of its forests and rivers will hurt the oceanic drifts and impact climate in Europe and in South Asia across the Arabian Sea, with the ageless affinities that the monsoon has brought particularly to East Africa and the Arab lands.

There’s another oddity that won’t escape your notice the moment you land in any city or country or part of Africa. Horizontally there’s a split. West Africa is French. East Africa is English speaking. And as you traverse south from Ethiopia to Uganda to Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and on to South Africa or Botswana, the French are lost. And the entire swathe of West Africa has the English-speaking bewildered with the complete dominance of French as the language.

The biodiversity of tribes is truly amazing. Uganda alone with its tiny pocket of land (by African standards) has 60 tribes and as many dialects. English or French binds them with one or other major tribe’s language winning acceptance across sub-regions of the continent and the countries.

There is one scourge that has hit nearly every African city. The Indian. He’s such a shame. He won’t blend with the country, never will take a job, will be shopkeepers and shop runners trading on margins he can leverage, will never join the security forces or the police, will conveniently seek citizen status in order to buy certain civil rights but keep away from the nation’s interests politically. The Indian’s motivation is only one thing — self-interest. The African nations and their powerful dictators or elected people suffer the Indian for he brings tax revenues in countries that are so bereft of revenues.

When you see these traders and shopkeepers in these cities you’re not surprised at how an Idi Amin — even if he was insane — was not wrong in his decision to exile 40,000 of them in one go. Only recently has Uganda declared its intent to include Indians as another tribe, Wahindi. Knowing these traders they will beguile the Ugandans into further exploitation as they wedge more rights into place for themselves.

Photo credit: CSIS