Book reviews

23 November 2013

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Why is Africa poor?

”You can date the decline"

of the continent, observes the colonial 'Oldest Member’ caricature in Michael Holman's vivid and entertaining new novel, Dizzy Worms, by the decay of its buildings, farms and institutions, what he terms "rings on Africa's post-independence trunk".

Holman's story is set in the slums of Kuwisha, a bustling African capital, around which aid consultants flock and locals, in the time-honoured African tradition, 'make a plan’ to survive.

Kuwisha could be Kenya, and Holman's Kireba its teeming slum of Kibera. Then again it is possible to envisage many African personalities and spots in Holman's writing: the Thumaiga Club where the cantankerous OM carries out his "unceasing battle against the follies of post-independence life"; and his wonderfully sympathetic description of State House might be Lusaka, where Kenneth Kaunda's nine-hole golf course has sunk into disrepair, and where "The air conditioners creaked and groaned to little effect, and the ceiling fans spun sporadically and erratically, and did no more than move the heavy warm air about the poorly lit rooms."

Dizzy Worms (Polygon) is enriched by Holman's characters, from the proprietor of the Harrods’

International Bar (and Nightspot), Charity Mupanga; Ngwazi, Who Mounts all the Hens, President Dr Josiah Nduka, President for Life; to Digby Adams, Senior International Profile Co-ordinator and Cross-

cutting Media Expert for WorldFeed, the Oxford-based aid agency. lt’s also not impossible to see Holman himself, a long-time Africa editor of the FT, in Cecil Pearson, the world-weary 'Africa hand', though he may take exception given Pearson’s pricking of his boredom by preying on Norwegian aid types at stultifying African Union conferences. Holman's own experience includes a year under a restriction order in the 1960s in then Gwelo due to his student 'trouble-making activities’ against lan Smith's regime. His knowledge of that country, too, and its political idiosyncrasies shines through in the text, not least in the person of Didymus Kigali, elder in the Church of the Blessed Lamb, and circumspect house steward to a retired London banker.

But Holman's book describes much more than places and people. Its target is the aid community for attempting to help itself by helping Africa. His message is consistent with his earlier two novels - Last Orders at Harrods and Fat Boy and the Dancing Ladies -in the trilogy: African development is going to rely on local identification of and ownership of its challenges. He also makes a profound analytical point in posing the question 'What will it take for Africa to do better’. The answer is partly in understanding better why policy decisions are made in the way they are.

Holman has spent much of his novel-writing time in Kenya, at an idyllic spot near Msambweni, south of Mombasa. But why is the ticket from Dar to Mombasa, little over an hour's flying time, more expensive than Europe to New York? En route to Msambweni, one can queue for ages to get the Mombasa ferry south. Why has no-one built a bridge or an alternative route in the last half century of independence?

The journey south to Diani Beach is interspersed with scenes of dramatic poverty, where the majority of the population lives well below the breadline. Why are there so few commercial agricultural enterprises in view, where instead farming is carried out on tiny, barely subsistence shambas? And why is everything so expensive - yet so little is made in Kenya?

The reason for this can often be found in poor decisions, and their origins are in the vested interests of politicians. African political leaders can get away with poor results, as Holman points out, because, in a perverse cycle, aid distorts the link of accountability between the populace and its leadership, making the latter more responsive to the donors than their electorate, since that is where the money is. The former UK High Commissioner to Kenya, Sir Edward Clay, tried to change this relationship by famously declaring in July 2004 that the gluttony of President Kibaki's government caused them to "vomit all over our shoes". Clay's campaign earned simultaneously the respect and apprehension of his own ministry and Kenya's government, both of which feared consequences for the distribution of British aid to Kenya. ln the case of the FCO, they were most worried about their relations with DflD. (Clay’s alienation was not complete until he fell out in late 2006 with No 10 and DfID over his public criticism of Prime Minister Blair's interference with the Serious Fraud Office's enquiries into BAe Systems’ business, including the sale of an overpriced and over-specification air-traffic control system for Tanzania. As Sir Edward highlighted the contradiction between the politicisation of British business activities and Her Majesty’s Government lecturing of other governments (in Africa and the EU) on the necessity of the rule of law, due process, etc, Whitehall vindictively withdrew a minor part-time job he had been recruited for after his retirement.) The Kenyan government also took its revenge in 2008, when one of Kibaki's ministers told Clay and the viewers of 'Hard Talk' that he was "PNG in Kenya."

In Africa, there is seldom cost to leadership’s bad behaviour or bad decisions, in part because humanitarian agencies genuflect to backstop even the most egregious of governments and policy - such as their ongoing activities to feed Robert Mugabe's people despite the origins of their hunger in the Zimbabwean leader’s actions. "So what has happened to the bloody social contract" snorts Holman's OM.

"lf you are starving, the UN will feed you; if the mozzies are killing your kids, Bill Gates will provide a mosquito net; if your road needs rebuilding, UKAid or DanAid will help; if no water, than WaterAid will dig a few wells; if the railway is falling apart" - he tapped that day’s paper, with its ads for UN posts - "then WorldFeed will bring in a foreigner to coordinate and help out."

As Pearson makes to leave Kuwisha in the company of Lucy, the outgoing WorldFeed representative, making way for a new generation of imperialists in the form of aid activists and consultants, they conclude they did not do much good. "Al| your editorials, news stories and features, Pearson, did they amount to a row of beans?' asks Lucy. His reply, "About as effective, I.suspect, as your projects, and the briefings and press releases that you issued in the name of WorldFeed".

But the message of the novel is much deeper than the personal ambitions of the individual characters. lt is about their effect on Africa. Holman puts his finger on this in citing WEB du Bois' question of over a century ago then about African Americans, but pertinent to Africa of today: "How does it feel to be a problem?" Until that mentality changes, as does the pity, excuses and soft money that goes with it, Africa has little chance of holding its leaders to account and escaping its poverty trap.

Dr Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation. His latest book, 'Why Africa is Poor - and what Africans can do about it’ (Penguin) is out in August.

Greg Mills