Thursday, December 31, 2009


The self-styled beautiful game is incredibly popular across the continent. Yet, on the eve of the biennial Africa Cup of Nations, football discussion in East African bars and clubs is almost exclusively focused on the English Premiership. Almost every man that I meet follows one of the English “big four”, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool, and, in my experience, they are for the most part better informed than most soccer fans in England.

The Premiership’s popularity is driven by a number of factors.

· Local leagues are not televised (and, even if they were, the quality on offer would be well below European standards). No supply translates into no demand.

· Courtesy of South Africa’s Multichoice satellite TV, available throughout the continent, at least four Premiership games are televised live each week, usually more. The time difference of three hours means that English games are screened from late afternoon to late evening, when the bars and clubs, crammed with young men wearing team shirts, do brisk business.

· African players are well represented in the Premiership – almost all the teams have at least one regular African player.

· Links between the UK and anglophone Africa, in particular, remain strong due to the ambivalent nature of the colonial legacy.

In East Africa, too, the massive interest in the Premiership also reflects the fact that this part of the continent consistently under-performs in continental competitions (which are dominated by North and West Africa). Certainly, the Africa Cup of Nations is eagerly anticipated in West Africa, as a prelude to next year’s World Cup in South Africa, where it will be a surprise if at least one African side does not make it to the final stages of the competition. In North Africa, too, passions run high. The recent diplomatic tension between Egypt and Algeria, fuelled by Algeria’s defeat of Egypt in their play-off in Khartoum, is reminiscent of the famous “soccer war” between Honduras and El Salvador in the late 1960s.

But Africa’s susceptibility to external cultural influence can be detrimental. I have just finished reading a long poem by Ugandan author, Okot p’Bitek, entitled The Defence of Lawino. This epic takes the form of a lament by an Acholi woman, Lawino, for her husband Ochol's abandonment of his indigenous culture and values in favour of the ways of the colonial power. Her lament is presented in thirteen separate submissions, including for the loss of traditional clothing, cosmetics, cooking, music and dance, language, child-rearing, medical treatment and, saddest of all, the rejection of ancestral names. No-one would argue that cultural paralysis is a positive thing, but the assault on African values and traditions is corrosive. It used to be driven by colonialism, but now it is accelerated by the instruments of mass global communication - so positive in many ways - but destructive of the fragile structures of indigenous culture.

Back to the football. In the Cup of Nations, Nigeria’s Super Eagles are overdue a win and probably have the greatest depth of talent available – but in the really important competition, I’m a strong supporter of Arsenal. Could this be their year, or will they once again flatter to deceive?

Monday, December 21, 2009


In JRR Tolkein’s first classic tale of Middle Earth, The Hobbit, there’s a riddling contest between Bilbo Baggins and the creature Gollum. Bilbo’s first riddle is

“A box without hinges, door or lid,
Yet inside golden treasure’s hid”

to which the answer is obviously an egg. Obvious, at least, to anyone brought up on a European or North American diet of large eggs containing bright yellow-orange yolks. This egg yolk pigmentation was something I had always taken for granted as normal, until I moved to Khartoum in 1992, where I was surprised to find that shop-bought Sudanese eggs had very pale grayish-yellow yolks. Since the taste was pretty much identical, I didn’t think about it much at the time, apart from the fact that it rendered the expression “sunnyside up” redundant.

One of the great pleasures of African life – even of the curious hybrid lifestyle of the long term resident – is the simplicity and freshness of the food we eat. Of course, Nairobi and even Kampala supermarkets offer the consistent year-round supply of most products that people from supermarket economies have become accustomed to – but nearly everybody buys fresh food from the market. In Khartoum, this meant that the supply of fresh produce was very seasonal: most green vegetables, for example, were only available in the short Sudanese winter – the rest of the year it was simply too hot for most temperate and sub-tropical crops to flourish. But the benign climate in highland East and Southern Africa provides almost a constant supply of most fresh fruit and vegetables – and the export horticulture business has led to widespread availability of exotics like leeks, French beans, sugar snap peas, courgettes and baby corn (among others).

Furthermore, the exacting food appearance standards so beloved by major supermarket chains lead to huge amounts of rejected produce which makes its way into local markets (or cattle feed). Despite our best efforts, mother Nature remains unable to produce uniformly straight French beans or identically-sized mangoes, and as a result our local markets overflow with stubbornly non-conformist misshapen fruits and vegetables whose taste belies their appearance.

Which brings me back to the subject of eggs. During a short consultancy assignment for Kenya’ s largest grain milling business, Unga, I learned that it was common practice to supplement commercial chicken feed with yellow dye to colour the yolk. This practice apparently began in the 1930s, when factory farming became widespread in Europe and North America, and when chickens no longer had access to fresh vegetable matter containing the xanthophylls necessary to generate the yellow colour preferred by consumers. Initially, fresh marigold petals were added to feed mixes, but for cost reasons this was quickly replaced by the synthetic dyes still used today.

The obsession with appearances (at least insofar as food is concerned) has still to make its way to Main Street, Africa, perhaps because people have more pressing needs than the colour of their eggs or the size of their tomatoes. The economy is not yet – to use a foul expression - supermarketized.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Over the past year, there has been a long running campaign against cross-generational sex in Uganda. This is a picture of one of the more memorable billboards adorning Kampala, highlighting the problem in stark and unambiguous terms.

In his amusing ethnography entitled "How to be a Ugandan" the writer and journalist Joachim Buwembo describes a number of stereotypical Ugandans, including "sex worker". This chapter describes the nature of cross-generational relationships between men and women as being mutually beneficial. An older man befriends a young woman (often a University student) and, in exchange for his gifts and financial support, she becomes his willing mistress. This arrangement did not prevent her from having other boyfriends, nor was it expected to last beyond her student years. However, in recent years, the social acceptance of cross-generational sex has been challenged, in particular through the spread of HIV/AIDS. There is currently a radio advertisement which uses a HIV+ man as an example of why it is so important to "get off the sexual network". Regrettably, however, it takes a great deal more than advertising to change behavioural norms, especially in a country with rampant poverty.

The fact is that many (if not most) young women are subject both to poverty, and to peer pressure to look good, to wear fashionable clothes, to make regular changes to their hairstyles, to furnish their rooms with new consumer durables....... and this requires a source of income. “Detoothing” is a term used by young Ugandan women to mean getting as much financial reward from a man while successfully eluding sex. It is an expression unique to Uganda, to the best of my knowledge. I haven’t heard it used anywhere else I have lived and worked. At least according to the newspapers, it is a fairly common occurrence, often ending badly. Some studies have apparently found that many adolescent girls believe that rape is an acceptable response by men to having been “detoothed” - which is a deeply worrying finding.

On an individual level, detoothing seems rather ridiculous, as opposed to harmful. There is always something faintly amusing (in a rather unpleasant schadenfreude way) about older men pursuing young women with gifts and being disappointed. But in reality it reflects badly on both parties and is certainly not a positive social trend.

However, when there are so many examples of similar behaviour that pervade Ugandan society, it is perhaps no wonder that detoothing is regarded as good sport. Detoothing, at a macro-level, goes by many other names: bribery, corruption, graft, but it pretty much amounts to the same thing. Getting something for nothing. A de-linking in the relationship between financial reward and hard work. To a large extent, I believe that one of the principal factors driving the detoothing culture is the influence of donor organisations, who offer financial and technical support for worthy goals, but all too often allow themselves to turn a blind eye to waste, pilferage and inefficiency in the implementation of their vision of development.

It would of course be wrong to describe donors as being detoothed. It would be more accurate to refer to the process as “milking”. But just as older men are willing accomplices in their own detoothing – in search of a new and exciting sexual partner - so too often are representatives of donor organizations willing accomplices in corruption. The problem is that it isn't really in anyone's interests (apart from the anonymous and remote tax payer, part of whose taxes go towards the aid budget) to expose inefficiency and corruption, just as it's not really in the detoother's best interests - or those of her victim's - to publicise the event.

In the words of the radio advertisement encouraging us off the sexual network, "this is not good".

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cell phone

The pace of change in Africa is astonishing. And what better example to illustrate this than the revolution in telecommunications? It is hard to think of a more transformational industry than the cellular phone. Its impact has been big elsewhere in the world but, for the most part, fixed land lines were part of the infrastructure fabric. Communication was always possible.

But this was not the case in most African countries. 17 years ago, when I first moved to Sudan, it was very difficult to make an international phone call. I remember well visiting the matchless Acropole Hotel in downtown Khartoum to use, at vast expense and inconvenience, their crackly international telephone line. All Oxfam had at the time was an antiquated telex machine. 12 years ago, in Njombe, SW Tanzania, it was almost impossible to make a land-line international telephone call, even from my employer's (Tanganyika Wattle) offices, though we did have a satellite phone in case of emergency. And nine years ago, in Zimbabwe, I bought my first basic Nokia model and plugged in to Econet. Since then, like most people, the cell phone has become an integral and essential part of my life. Increased network coverage, competition, international roaming mean that it is now unusual not to be able to communicate even from the most rural locations.

In Central and East Africa the most successful of the early communications businesses was the well-named Celtel, founded by one of Africa's most celebrated entrepreneurs, Mo Ibrahim. Over a period of about 10 years, Celtel expanded rapidly and, in 2007 was acquired by Kuwaiti investors and rebranded as Zain. Aesthetically this was a disaster. Celtel had irritating slogans with meaningless punctuation - for example "Make. New Friends." or "Change. Your World." - but its billboards were otherwise attractive. After the change in branding, Zain introduced a truly hideous shade of pink into the East African landscape along with the trite slogan "A wonderful world". Sickly pink buildings now litter Uganda's towns and villages.

Besides creating the ability to communicate, the cell phone is now, through initiatives like M-Pesa and Zap, becoming a money transfer medium. Sending airtime - and using the transfer of airtime as an unofficial currency - has been used for some time, but Safaricom's ground-breaking M-Pesa in Kenya has enabled goods and services transactions to take place through telephone transfer. This promises to have a major impact on rural communities, in particular, by accelerating the velocity of money - effectively, increasing money supply.

Taxes on airtime and on company profits have provided Governments with substantial increases in tax revenue - wth very little extra work! Service providers collect and remit duties through the sale of airtime and - due to their size and scale - are examples of good compliance with revenue requirements. In many African countries, cell phone providers top the list of annual tax payers (though collectors would be more accurate) - a remarkable feat given the fact that inefficient state-owned fixed-line monopolies collected and paid a tiny amount of tax until the dawn of the cell phone era.

Popular culture has also benefited enormously. Competition among service providers in the industry for advertising and sponsorship activities have resulted in a stream of sponsored concerts - the latest and most-hyped of which will hit Kampala in late January - the R Kelly I believe concert supported by Zain - but which also benefit the local music, dramatic, fashion and artistic scenes.

And, better still, the cost of communication - domestic and international - has fallen steadily due to competition. The transformation is complete and provides a great example to anyone who doubts the potential of the African market to adopt new technologies and offer investment opportunities.

Monday, December 7, 2009


My father was very fond of bananas. He once told me that, during his childhood in Salisbury, bananas were his greatest treat. The supply of bananas to Britain was severely interrupted by the Second World War, but the return of bananas was one of the few bright spots in post-war food-rationed Britain. At that time, of course, few people, if any, gave much consideration to contemporary food supply issues, like food-miles, fair trade, and so on, and the role of companies like the United Fruit Company in Central and South America (subsequently giving rise to the description "banana republics") was largely unknown. The important thing was the supply of yellow Cavendish bananas. Certainly, during my childhood, it was unusual for us not to have a bunch of bananas in the fruit bowl.

I first visited Uganda in 1994. On the long drive from Entebbe to Kampala, I remember being struck by the colossal number of banana plants along the side of the road. The following day, I had my first taste of matooke, steamed pulped bananas served wrapped in banana leaves, resembling a yellow mashed potato. I wasn't too impressed: it seemed bland and tasteless to me, and I was surprised to learn that many Ugandans, especially the Baganda, do not consider a meal to be complete without matooke.
Since then, as I have travelled more widely, I have become more and more aware of the cultural significance that so many people attach to their core staple food - and how difficult it is to change preferences. In retrospect, my father - along with many older British people - had a powerful preference for potatoes and bread, and he did not really consider a meal to be satisfactory without one of these. In Ethiopia, the Amhara prefer Injera, in most of East and Southern Africa, maize porridge (ugali, sadza, pap) is essential, and in West Africa rice and cassava (gari) are most popular. One of my Board of Directors, Walter Vandepitte, underscored the strength of cultural attachment to a staple by telling me that in his experience Rwanda was one of the very few countries he could think of where the core staple had changed (from bananas to potatoes). I am not sure that I agree with him - maize, potatoes and bananas have all been imported to Africa in the course of the last two millennia and must, therefore, themselves have taken the place of other indigenous staples - but certainly changes in staples are rare and take place over a long time.
Since moving to Uganda in 2005, however, I have come to appreciate matooke as a staple food: indeed, it has become unusual for me not to have matooke at least once a day. I have also come to appreciate the banana far more than as a sweet yellow treat. It is fibrous, non-allergenic and packed with potassium. It grows and reproduces rapidly. It produces fruit throughout the year (provided there is sufficient rainfall). Its leaves have many uses. And it has numerous varieties - from the starchy matooke to delicious, sweet, small "apple" bananas - unknown to consumers of bland plantation-grown Cavendish bananas.
B is for (Ugandan) Banana.

Friday, December 4, 2009

An African Alphabet

In recent years, I have rediscovered the Yaya shopping centre in Nairobi. When living in Kilimani about 13 years ago, I often used to walk from home to do some weekend shopping there, often hand-in-hand with my eldest son (who cannot have been more than 2 at the time). Since then, vast numbers of new shopping centres have sprung up: the Village Market, Adams Arcade, the Junction, and so on, but the Yaya centre remains a great place to shop.
It is blessed with what, in my opinion, is the best bookshop in East Africa: the simply-named Book Stop on the second floor. I regret that I don't know the owner's name, but it is a real pleasure to visit his shop with its great collection of fiction and Africa-related books, both new and second-hand. Yesterday, while en route back to Kampala, I came away with books by two of my favourite authors, Bamboo, by William Boyd and Waiting for the Barbarians, by JM Coetzee, plus a request that if he came across a book entitled Gordon: Misfit or Martyr he should let me know. I have no doubt that he will do so. It is how bookshops should be: owned and managed by book-lovers.
I descended to the ground floor (the Java coffee house) and immediately set about Bamboo, a miscellany of Boyd's experience, reflection and opinion. A tool that he uses in his writing is an A to Z of observations, designed to give the writer some discipline in marshaling his thoughts and the reader the opportunity to assemble his own Gestalt of the subject. There are several examples of this in Bamboo, my favourite of which amounts to a short biography of another of my favourite authors, Anton Chekhov.....
Since for some time I have been in search of a theme for this blog, I have now decided to write my own A to Z, my own African Alphabet, and this is a suitable first post: what better then this for the letter A? In the series to follow, I shall be mindful of the pointedly sarcastic advice provided by Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, to non-Africans entitled How Not to Write About Africa (which can be found on fellow-blogger Holli's Ramblings). While I can't promise to follow his advice - Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces - I can undertake that this will be a personal journey through the continent which I now think of as my home.
A is for Alphabet.