Gaddafi’s dream might live on through an “undercurrent” that seems to be uniting Sub-Saharan African countries
I have just returned from Ghana, the 30th country (or so) that I have now visited in Africa. Even though I was only in Accra, Ghana’s capital, I completely understand why the Ghanaian diaspora is so keen to return home.
Ghana, like many other places in Africa, is buzzing. As I was walking around the city centre, a thought suddenly occurred to me. Now that Africa is increasingly hailed as the “rising continent”, those in the West who are keen to stand out as “experts”, insist on shouting from every rooftop that “Africa is a continent, not a country”. I don’t know who their audience is, pre-teens who opted out of Geography perhaps, but even though I would never claim to be an expert in anything except daydreaming about the beaches of Mozambique, I can’t help but notice increasing similarities between Africa and America.
As a child, when I lived in Tanzania and my parents and I would drive to Kenya (for shopping) or to Zambia (to visit my sister), each country seemed quite different. I don’t feel that way anymore. In my gap year, back in 1996, I drove across the whole of North America (petrol was cheap then), and even though I found the United States to be very diverse, from Alaska to Louisiana, I always knew that I was in the USA. Yet, as soon as I entered Canada I felt that I was in a very different country. Some “undercurrent” seemed to unite all the States I visited, yet it wasn’t present in Canada. I am starting to feel the same way about North Africa/Sub-Saharan Africa. North Africa is significantly different to its neighbours in the South, but driving around Accra last week, I could easily have been in Kampala or Nairobi. The billboards, buildings, street sellers, all have the same “feel” that you simply don’t find in North Africa or anywhere else in the world.
Africa has many languages and cultures, yes, but I am writing this blog from Belgium, a tiny county where 60% of the population speaks Dutch, 38% speaks French and 2% German. The Dutch is divided into hundreds of Flemish dialects that could easily be mistaken for different languages as they don’t even sound the same (don’t get me started on the cultural differences here). Yet every city is similar enough for me to know that I haven’t crossed any of the country’s borders. Europe is very much a continent, united mostly by an agreement between 27 countries not go go to war anymore. 10 minutes into France and you are definitely no longer in Belgium. Even the petrol stations are different by the way they look, the items they sell in the store, and the lavatories. Countries in Asia and Latin America differ as much as those in Europe.
In Sub-Saharan Africa however, petrol stations are quite similar, just like in the US they are quite similar in all 50 states (including Hawaii). This brings me to President Obama’s upcoming trip to Sub-Saharan Africa (which merits a blog of its own – watch this space) on June 26th. He will be visiting Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa, 3 of my favourite countries on the continent. He intends to focus on economic cooperation and I believe that he might expand the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the Clinton-era legislation that provides Sub-Saharan countries with duty-free access to America’s markets for almost all products (except sugar, dairy and peanuts). To Americans, their President will be doing business with “Africa”, plain and simple. While Obama has devoted significant time to emerging economies in Asia and Latin America, he has spent just one day in sub-Saharan Africa since taking office (a 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009).
I hope that his upcoming visit will give American citizens an updated view of Sub-Saharan Africa, as once the continent becomes more “united”, a process that seems already underway, not only by my humble observations, but also through trade barriers being dropped and increasing political and economic cooperation, it will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. A more united Africa will certainly be able to meet the challenges of globalisation. And America best take note.
They know better than anyone the strength that lies in unity.