My time in Africa: Lessons, experiences and concessions

  • 9 September 2015
  • From the section Africa
Andrew Harding in Lesotho
Image caption This photo was taken when we went up into the Lesotho highlands looking for Chinese shopkeepers - there were Chinese supermarkets in almost every village we went through

We've paid off the six armed guards who've been protecting us, haggled over excess baggage, and I'm now writing this in a small plane heading south from the sun-baked Somali port of Bosaso, across the vast, yellow-brown plains of the Horn of Africa, towards Nairobi.

It's a special moment for me.

I've spent just over a decade living and working on this continent, and this is the end of my final trip in this particular job, and so a chance - first of all - to say thank you for taking the trouble to read this blog, and the many others I've written, in courtrooms, under trees and stars, in tents, hotel rooms, stadiums, bars, huts and airports all over Africa.

Generalisations

It's been a wonderful, enthralling, sometimes sobering privilege. And now, of course, comes the temptation to offer you some grand conclusions about the future of the continent.

But fear not.

"I don't like generalisations," Nelson Mandela's lawyer, George Bizos, once told me, chidingly.

Besides, the more I've travelled here, the more I've come to appreciate the difficulty of trying to draw useful comparisons between, say, South Africa and Sierra Leone, and, for that matter, to resent reading about or hearing from foreigners who "have fallen in love with Africa" or who feel that single word - "Africa" - can still be applied to events - Ebola, famine, terrorism - that have left so much of this huge continent untouched.

And then of course there's the simple fact that humble journalists like me are, more often than not, at the mercy, not of grand themes, but of mere events.


I have travelled to many parts of the African continent over the years I have been here and met many wonderful people. It is one of the most dynamic places I have worked and lived in. It's been a wonderful, enthralling, sometimes sobering privilege.


I wasn't expecting to spend my 44th birthday on a small fishing boat laden with weapons, heading into the besieged Libyan city of Misrata; nor arguing with a government soldier to spare the life of a colleague in the chaos of Ivory Coast's civil war; or watching France's President Francois Hollande emerge dazed and delighted from a giddy crowd of Malians celebrating the liberation of Timbuktu; or standing on a roadside in Sierra Leone, watching an old man try to save his Ebola-ravaged wife from dying; or, need I add, spending weeks - or was it months? - sitting in a Pretoria courtroom tweeting manically about Oscar Pistorius's trial.

And yet, of course, there have been themes.

World-beating economic growth statistics and enduring inequality, China's phenomenal infrastructure programme; the growing number of democratic - sometimes nominally democratic - elections; the movement to restrict presidents to two terms in office; and the rival trend of leaders amending the constitution "democratically" to hold on to power; the emerging backlash against traditional foreign aid; the slow fight to address climate change; Islamist extremism; the impact of mobile phones and social media; the all-too-often-deadly migration to Europe; and the rise of an increasingly assertive middle class.


Taken in northern Ethiopia, near the village of Korem - which was at the epicentre of the 1984 famine, ahead of the UN conference on funding development, in July.

We'd stopped at the side of the road to get some shots and these kids appeared.


But it is in relation to that last point that I now find myself digging my heels in, and discovering my own emerging bias.

Foreign correspondents like me are often harangued in Africa for painting an unduly negative picture of the continent - of relishing the gloom in obstinate defiance of all the good news.

Perhaps there are times when that is true.

Voiceless majority

But it's always worth looking at these things in terms of power, and access to power. Who has influence? Who has a voice?

Why do South African newspapers always discuss the alleged "genocide" against white farmers, while ignoring the far more bloody and systematic campaign of violence against impoverished Somali shopkeepers in Soweto or around Cape Town?

Why do the television crews still gravitate towards foreign humanitarian workers during emergencies, with their convenient planes and well-stocked compounds?

And - in the same spirit - how much unquestioning focus should one give to the "Africa Rising" narrative, so well articulated by the social-media-wired, urban, aspirational middle classes of Nairobi or Lagos?

Because the truth, hard-learned on dirt roads and neglected corners, is that the majority - the often-voiceless majority - on this continent are still facing daunting challenges: from soaring prices, to unemployment, wretched schools and hospitals, an absence of justice, and most pressingly of all - insecurity.

That applies in the beleaguered townships of South Africa, in the forests of the Central African Republic, the besieged towns of north-eastern Nigeria, the slums of Monrovia, and on the endless battlefields of South Sudan.

Of course there is plenty going impressively, fantastically right here - the arc of history bending towards optimism and all that.

But it seems to me that a bias towards the powerless and voiceless is a reasonable and necessary one - especially when they still seem to be in the majority.


This was taken at the end of our first trip to cover Ebola in Sierra Leone.

It was the trip when we did that big piece about Kigbal village, with the living on one side of the road and the dying on the other.

The quickest way to get to Freetown's airport is by boat.


I could go on... But, the captain has just announced that we're coming in to land at Mogadishu's airport. A stiff wind is blowing spray off the waves and over the dunes beside the runway.

I have so many favourite places in Africa. A speedboat down Lake Kivu, the swaying bars of Lubumbashi, lobster on the beach outside Freetown, the pink-rock highlands of Ethiopia, the star-crowded night sky outside Timbuktu.

But for some reason Somalia - violent and irrepressible - seems to have got under my skin more than anywhere else.

In recent years it has managed to pull off the remarkable feat of appearing to display this continent's myriad nations' possible futures simultaneously - an ambitious, globalised, resurgent state, rallying at impressive speed; a divided, stagnant, might-have-been, wrestling with corruption and poverty; and a wretched failure, exporting terrorism to its neighbours.

I'm a glass-half-full kind of person. So I'm still betting on Somalia to find a way forward.

In the meantime, I'm now taking a break from daily news to write a book about some of the garrulous, irascible, wonderful people I've come to know in Mogadishu and beyond.

I hope to be back, somewhere, before too long.