Let me start by saying that I’m no expert on Africa. I’ve barely worked here for 18 months, and the extent of my experience prior to that was a week-long safari in Kenya and lots of phone calls and meetings over the years. Still, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and I guess I know slightly more about Africa than people who get all their world information from Fox News Channel.
Contrary to popular belief, the entire continent isn’t riding around in the backs of pickup trucks with machine guns welded on the tops, nor is every child given an AK-47 on their first day in kindergarten. All government officials aren’t corrupt, and not everyone lives in small villages in mud huts.
Are there places where some of this stuff might be true? Sure. Parts of Africa have been struggling with independence for a pretty long time. There has been and will probably continue to be civil wars, as new countries struggle with the transition from oppressed colonies to independent states. For a couple of hundred years Africa was seen as a place where Europeans could come and take what they wanted. When they finally left, they didn’t exactly leave instruction books on how to build democracy from the wreck of oppressed societies..
My only direct experience of Africa is Angola. For thirty years, civil and not-so-civil war raged in this country. The vast majority of the population moved from the small villages and towns to the capital of Luanda, mainly because they were looking for refuge, and they got tired of getting blown up by land mines when they tried to till their fields. Luanda expanded to many times the size that the infrastructure could cope, and the rest of the country’s infrastructure crumbled from neglect.
The various wars in Angola ended 6 years ago, and the rebuilding has begun. Angola is pretty lucky – as a country they produce almost a million barrels of oil every day. At 75 dollars per barrel, and with the country oil company being a 50% shareholder in most operations, well, you do the math.
Still, Angola is like a whole lot of other African countries – there is very little cultural history of self-rule in peacetime, so they struggle. Government officials live in Luanda, so it’s Luanda’s infrastructure that gets worked on first.
The International Monetary Fund has been providing funds for African development for a number of years, and continues to do so. More often than not, countries negotiate extensions of repayment dates or other means of avoiding paying back IMF funding. The IMF places many restrictions on the funding, demanding social and economic change.
Enter the Chinese. Over the past few years, China has been entering Africa in a big way. As the world’s number two consumer of petroleum, they are clearly interested in the security of their energy supply. So, they invest in Africa, hugely, and with no strings attached. They send hundreds of Chinese workers every month Angola – not only engineers and supervisors but also laborers. They are rebuilding roads, rails and communications infrastructure. They paid
frightening sums for offshore oil leases – so much that traditional oil operators just shook their heads wondering how such investments would ever pay out.
Again, I’m no expert, but when you compare the few billion that China paid for it’s leases to the more-than-a-few-billion that the US continues to pour into wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, I’d say they are getting national energy security for a considerable bargain. Next time the Angolan equivalent of Jed Clampett sees bubblin’ crude, who do you think he’s going to call?
I’m probably not the first person to look out the window of an aircraft at the African terrain and see opportunity. There was clearly a reason why just about every European country laid claim to some section of the African turf, and then suffered greatly to keep it (”Oh dear, we’re out of gin AGAIN”). The opportunity of Africa isn’t lost on Africans either, nor is the revolving door of opportunity-seekers arriving from all parts of the globe.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Africans, at least Angolans, it is that they are patient. They have developed the sense of “this too will pass” to a fine art. They know that if they wait long enough, their latest house guests will depart, leaving them to look after their own country.
It’s Sunday, and I get the afternoon off. Earlier today, one of the guys came in and said, “Hey, Nalco guys are heading out of camp today to that technical school. You want to go?”
Heck, any chance to get out of camp, I take. I’d heard about this school – it’s in a small town about 30 minutes drive north. Apparently it is run by a Danish woman who practically brought it up from nothing 10 years ago to a very successful technical and teacher training school. We went over to Nalco’s offices for lunch, and then helped them load up a pickup truck and the back of a school bus with coolers, food and other stuff. The drive is great – green rolling hills as far as you can see. The occasional house or hut, a few people. There was about a dozen people on the bus and a few more in the pickup – apparently today’s event was going to be a soccer match as well as a demonstration of the skills that the students are learning.
We found the school at the end of a side road. The students were singing and clapping as we got off the bus – all of us lined up listening. The sound was amazing, harmony and tempo, clapping and dancing. The director, Inga, stepped up to introduce herself. Her energy and excitement was contagous, and it was obvious that the students love and respect her. We were taken to a small area behind the school where several of the students were gathered to give us a demonstration of the electrical principles that they had been learning. The presentation was in Portuguese, but as the students screwed in light bulbs and flipped switches, even I could tell what was going on. We were then taken into a long classroom where there was more singing, poetry and even a guy who mimed a rap song. The final, and longest, event of the day was a soccer match between the students and some of the Nalco employees.
What a bloodbath – the students were organized and well trained, the Nalgo guys had just sort of showed up to play. During the match, Inga suggested that she take us to see a church in the town. I’d seen the place a couple of times while driving by on other trips to Landana. A large, very well kept church with a high steeple and plenty of outlying buildings. We were amazed to learn from Inga that the place was over 1000 (yes, that’s three zeros) years old.
Apparently Chevron and another company had helped renovate it about 5 years ago. The outbuildings are a school for grades 1 to 8, and also quarters for teachers and the priest. She said when the renovation work had been completed, the Pope had visited to help them reopen.
Back to Inga’s school. With the Nalco guys still getting their butts kicked in the background, Inga proceeded to tell me about all the work that her organization does. In addition to the technical school, she also had a teachers college. The college was sending teachers out into the “bush” to teach in small villages. They were in the process of building more colleges in Angola and other countries.
After lots of group photos, our visit came to an end. We committed to come back, and Roger is already making a list of things that we can do to help her. As we were returning, one of the Nalco guys was telling us that Inga never asks for much – they practically have to force things on her. Her dedication to her job and to the people should be an inspiration to all of us.
As Roger said, “She’s the kind of person they make documentaries about.”
What a day. I’m really looking forward to visiting Inga again. Perhaps I can help a little.