Africa archived articles

Subscribe to the RSS feed for this category only

Africa and Cycling and Economy13 May 2008 at 18:51 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Urban transport in Africa is chaotic and only getting worse by the year – degrading infrastructure, growing megalopolis and rising energy costs are not helping. I traveled in quite a few African countries and I had the dubious privilege of using public transportation such as the legendary minibuses which are a mandatory part of the African experience. At home in Paris, I mostly ride my bike. I always wonder why bike transportation is not more developed in Africa : it would be practical, sustainable and consistent with the local standard of living while extending business opportunities and access to goods and services – all while using few imported goods and mostly local workforce.

At first glance the bicycle seems ideal transportation for many in Africa cities: most are flat, trip distances are short and money for private motor vehicles and public transit systems is scarce. But generally bicycles are underutilized in Africa” writes David Mozer in “The Bicyclist’s Dilemma In African Cities”. He notes that “a survey of literature by Africa writers indicates that bicycles were a prominent mode of transport during the first half of the twentieth century. But for reasons that are not totally clear the bicycle and bicyclist don’t fare well in the contemporary Africa city. [..] Bicycles are used less in most African urban centers than in many European and North American cities. Africans show a substitution directly between walking and motor transport as income increases“.

The difference with Asia is striking. Ten years ago, at the UNCHS (Habitat) Regional Symposium on Urban Poverty in Asia, A. Rahman Paul Barter noted many differences between bicycle use in Asia and Africa : ” In most Asian cities, bicycles are within reach of many poor households and have been widely used for the last several decades (Replogle, 1992). In Asia, unlike most African and Latin American cities, bicycles are affordable even to many of those for whom public transport is not affordable (Godard, 1997; Howe and Dennis, 1993; Tiwari and Saraf, 1996)“.

The difference may have a lot to do with the presence of a deliberate industrial development policy geared towards the building of a sustainable local cycling manufacture and maintenance industry : the UNCHS paper goes on : “Several Asian countries have successfully pursued policies in the post -World War Two era which enabled a local bicycle manufacturing industry to flourish and for large numbers of affordable bicycles to be available on the local market. The main low-income examples is China but bicycle manufacturing is also significant in India and Pakistan, while earlier Japan and Taiwan also developed very large bicycle industries (Replogle, 1992). In China before 1979 bicycle ownership and production remained something of a privilege but with market reforms bicycle ownership rose steeply (Hook and Replogle, 1996). China has also long provided direct government and employer-based subsidies to workers for the purchase of bicycles (Replogle, 1992). India and China have also managed to become large exporters of bicycles. The lack of a significant domestic bicycle industry and high tariffs on imports in Bangladesh contributes to bicycles being beyond the reach of the poor in Dhaka (Gallagher, 1992). There are some examples of successful credit schemes for the purchase of non-motorised vehicles by low-income people in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (World Bank, 1996)“.

Why African governments have disregarded the opportunity to develop a home grown light industry consistent with local manpower, local competence, local needs and ressources is a nagging question, especially since such light industry can be the seeds of an economic biotope within which more sophisticated industries can develop in a grassroots fashion.

But practical obstacles and hostile individual attitudes toward cycling are also to blame, most of them catalogued in Rahman Paul Barter’s paper. I had the opportunity to interview locals about them. The objections related to security and afford ability are easily invalidated by the fact that in many African countries light motorcycles are overwhelmingly the popular way to provide individual transportation as soon as it is within economic reach, as anyone who has ridden among the hordes of mopeds can testify.

So what remains is prejudice against human powered vehicles in general and bicycles in particular as a serious mean of transportation. As I have heard from potential users in Africa, riding a bicycle is not recognized as a dignified mean of transportation. Physical exertion being shunned, the bicycle being seen as a child toy unworthy of an adult, cycling being incompatible with the socially accepted role of women… The objections I witnessed in Africa are strangely similar to the ones I hear in Paris. And apparently they are the same elsewhere in the world. A lot of communication work remains to be done everywhere in the world so that cycling becomes a serious choice for transportation. It is sad that even where it makes the most sense and delivers the most positive externalities, cycling still needs propaganda to convince transportation users.

Of course, cycling is not a universal solution. But it is a valid tool which is currently underrepresented in the transportation mix, especially in poor countries where in many situations where it is economically and practically optimal, it is neglected for irrational reasons. I hope that African entrepreneurs will see the opportunity along with micro-credit institutions and ambitious politicians who can foster awareness initiatives.

Africa and Military and Politics06 Jan 2008 at 23:51 by Jean-Marc Liotier

The story has been getting recently some more exposure, but it has been going on for years with sporadic appearances in mainstream media. It is still quietly under-reported in contrast to the widely hyped Darfur crisis.

As we can see in Sudan, killing civilians and destroying infrastructure is a practical method of ethnic purification that can yield useful results. But the social fabric itself is left intact – and with it the opponent still has the potential to survive as an organized group. But to really annihilate the opposition, its social fabric has to be torn up. And that is the motive behind the massive organized rape campaign in eastern Congo. Some of it is random violence comparable to what is found in any other armed conflict, but there is a disturbing trend that shows a systematic approach : the heart of darkness has found its weapon of mass destruction. According to the UN representative, the prevalence and intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo are “almost unimaginable”.

A UN report found that in the central Equateur province, the police and army often responded to civil unrest “with organised armed reprisals that target the civilian population and involve indiscriminate pillage, torture and mass rape”. It is most notable that this violence is not the uncontrolled acts of random rebels, but planified operations executed by official armed forces. Of course, violence by state armed forces against civilian population is not a Congolese monopoly, but it is still an alarming signal that something is going very wrong, especially at this level and this extent.

In traditional societies, in the absence of a centralized impartial power to enforce social order, honor within the group is by far the most important measure by which relations of trust are established and preserved. Lose it and you lose everything. When you have witnessed how touchy members of traditional societies are when they feel the tiniest slight to what they perceive as their honor, you can understand how utterly ruined they are after every conceivable taboo has been broken in front of them. It goes beyond the sheer psychological shock of the abomination : in modern societies there is a safety net that can help in mending a broken life and starting again – medical, psychological, professional and financial help – but in the chaos of eastern Congo there is nothing of the sort. Losing all social links is a catastrophic event as bad as the physical effects of the violence. In practical terms, survivors of rape face abandonment by husbands, discrimination by the whole community and a very bleak future.

John Holmes, the UN emergency relief coordinator remarked : “It’s the scale and brutality of it, it’s the use of it as a weapon of terror. It’s the way it’s done publicly, for maximum humiliation. It’s hard to understand”. Actually, when put into the context of a systematic use for social destruction it makes a lot of sense. With a heavy medical burden unsupported by any health care, with overwhelming shame and no psychological support, with sexually transmitted diseases and a destroyed reproductive system that voids all prospects of bearing children, women not only lose their role as pillar of their community but they also become a constant reminder of the humiliation, a vehicle for the hopelessness. And their former community that rejects them suffers just as heavy a blow to its cohesion.

Again, the key point is that those horrendous violences are not reported to be the product of the random urges of some isolated criminally perverse elements – they are part of a systematic campaign against entire populations. The yet to be open case should not waste time targeting the lowly executioners : if the phenomenon is as widely spread as reports suggest, then it cannot exist without approval and active support from their military hierarchy. Some major war criminals are out there, still free to roam and take profit from the continuing suffering of the population. And we have not even started to denounce them, so it is not even worth mentioning doing anything against them.

Sadly, we are not interested in doing anything to stop the crisis in Congo : a meaningful intervention would be hugely expensive and last a generation. In all honesty, I am not ready to pay for that, nor are you – so we simply look away. From a Realpolitik point of view that may be a sound strategic decision. But from an humanitarian point of view the least we can do is not to let the horror stare us down when we look at it in the face.

If you wish to help, you can promote awareness of the humanitarian situation in Eastern Congo, or for a more direct impact you can get in touch with the Panzi Hospital whose action in the treatment of sexual violence has been exemplary.

Africa and Music31 Dec 2007 at 1:22 by Jean-Marc Liotier

I’m not particularly fond of new year’s greetings, but this time I stumbled upon some randomly incident inspiration in the form of Babatunde Olatunji‘s 1959’s song… “Odun de” means “Happy new year” and the lyrics “Odun de ire” mean “good fortune in the new year” in the Yoruba language.

So in lieu of seasonal electronic and dead tree spam, here is something from Baba to start your new year on…

Yesterday is history.
Tomorrow is a mystery.
And today?
Today is a gift.
That’s why we call it the present.

— Babatunde Olatunji

Africa and Music15 Oct 2007 at 20:07 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Sorting old papers I stumbled upon a note I had taken while underway in Zimbabwe. It is the lyrics of a Shona lullaby. My phonetic transcription was like this – Elisabeth posted a comment with a corrected transcript :

Shiri yakanaka unoendepi ?

Huya, huya, huya titambe

Ndiri kuenda kumakore

Kuti ndifanane nemakore

I have not found those lyrics anywhere else on the web, but I was told this song is a classic for many children. I don’t remember the exact meaning of the song – the closest thing I have to a translation is on the BBC Radio 3 site where a Zimbabwean mother explains :

‘Here’s your nice bed’ (you will be imagining there’s a bed flying up in sky) ‘Hey nice bed where are you going? Please, come to me, Come let’s play together.’ And the bed will say ‘Oh no, I’m going into the clouds I want to be as nice as the clouds.’

Now you better have a good answer ready for when your kids ask you why the bed goes flying into the clouds… Until then you an go to the BBC Radio 3 site to listen to the tune from a recording of that woman singing Shiri Yakanaka !

I sang that to my daughter when she was a baby a few years ago, and it worked like a charm…

« Previous Page