At the checkpoint on the northern edge of Niono, a group of Malian soldiers sat in the shade, watching the news - about their country, about Oprah interviewing Lance Armstrong, or whatever - on a battered television.
Some of the soldiers had been part of the force routed several days earlier, when Islamist rebels attacked the garrison town of Diabaly, an hour's drive on a dirt road to the north.
"Events, dear boy, events…" Harold Macmillan's overused and quite possibly apocryphal warning - supposedly given in response to a question about what British prime ministers fear most - still holds true for anyone attempting to peer into the year ahead in search of something sensible to predict.
2012 reinforced the point in Africa. Who could have anticipated Mali's spectacular fall from grace and stability? Or the shocking milestone of South Africa's Marikana killings? Or the capture of the eastern DRC town of Goma by rebels? Or even Somalia's peaceful and surprising election?
With the African National Congress party's figurehead Nelson Mandela in fragile health and the country facing a series of difficult problems, this is a critical period for South Africa.
It was late afternoon, and they were still cheering. Every few seconds another name was read out, and the families - some overflowing into the lobby outside the hall - jumped up from their chairs with delight.
Stunning beaches, impoverished townships, vast potential and a persistent sense of crisis - welcome to Bitou, a place that seems to encapsulate many of South Africa's enduring contradictions.
But could this isolated, sun-drenched, struggling municipality also represent something more intriguing? Might it just be a weather vane for the nation's future political direction at a time of growing uncertainty?
It is an uncomfortable meeting. Ten rival gang leaders - including several convicted killers - are sitting on plastic chairs in a community centre in Lavender Hill, making strenuous attempts to avoid eye contact.
For years these men have turned their neighbourhood - a collection of drab brick apartment blocks clustered round a patch of grass known locally as "the killing fields," in the shadow of Cape Town's Table Mountain - into something resembling a war zone.
It is conflict with genocide in its rear-view mirror; a conflict of bewildering complexity, deeply rooted in issues of identity and land, aggressively manipulated by external forces, and haunted by a lingering sense that eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's status quo - violent, unpredictable, and locked in a cynical and seemingly unbreakable cycle of chaos - is much more convenient to those with armies to flex than some sullen, restrictive peace.
Is it too much to suggest that the war-infested hills of eastern DR Congo have, after almost two decades of unbroken misery, become Africa's version of the Arab-Israeli crisis?
In a cluttered office in the centre of Mogadishu, a dozen men in suits squeeze round a table to haggle politely over the price of business licenses. An elderly air conditioner wheezes quietly in the background.
In a ruined city famous for its warlords and anarchy, this modest, humdrum meeting of Mogadishu's new Chamber of Commerce feels like a milestone - proof that Somalia's capital is slowly returning to a loose approximation of normality after two decades of spectacular self-destruction.
Helen Zille treads a narrow path. She's a white woman, leading the main opposition party, against a former African liberation movement, in what you might call a "developing democracy".
In many countries, the leader of the opposition can afford to rail and spin and generally throw mud at the ruling party without too much caution, while those in charge of running the government are held more firmly to account.
Africa correspondent since 2009, covering the continent's highs and lows - from the World Cup, Africa's economic boom, and the literary treasures of Timbuktu, to the pirates of Somalia, the conflict in Ivory Coast, and the struggles of Zimbabwe.
Twenty years as a foreign correspondent, based in the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Asia.
Reported on the 1993 parliamentary rebellion in Moscow, two Chechen wars, the Asian tsunami in 2004, and conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, Congo, Sudan, Liberia and beyond.
Born in the UK, grew up in Belgium and boarding school. Married with three children.
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