Monday, February 22, 2010

Mercenary Missionary Misfit

There is an old saying that expatriates in Africa fall into one of three categories: mercenary, missionary or misfit. I hadn't thought a great deal about this harmless stereotyping until I recently came across the following academic abstract on the internet:

There are three stereotypes of the development worker: mercenary, missionary and misfit. The origins of this tripartite characterization of the aid community are unclear but certainly it has a currency, or at least a resonance, within the industry. ........ While there are individuals who can be recognized as approximating to each of the three stereotypes, in general people veer between them, at different points in their careers and even at different points on the same day. Finally, although these three characterizations — missionary, mercenary and misfit — appear to be contrasting, …… they are in fact variations on a common theme and a modern version of what people in the industry tend to see as the new `white man's burden'.

Well, well. The ancient stereotype is now the subject of academic discourse.

In general, the least interesting of these categories are the missionaries, though they still come in abundance to this most religious of continents. Mercenaries have always been attracted by Africa’s wealth – first they came for the slave trade, then, and now, for Africa’s minerals and natural resources. Most recently Simon Mann failed in his alleged attempt to lead a coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, eerily reminiscent of Frederick Forsyth’s humdrum novel The Dogs of War, except that his plane, so to speak, failed to get off the ground.

Expatriation to another culture, where rules and customs are not the same, is fertile ground for misfits, who relish the apparent freedom they have to be themselves, liberated from the social and behavioural constraints they are subjected to at home. And they make the most interesting stories. Because of my experience in Sudan, it is probably not surprising that of all the misfits that litter the British relationship with Africa I find Gordon the most fascinating. It is impossible to do justice to Gordon in a few words. His extraordinary career spanned the Crimea, the Taiping rebellion in China (where he led the wonderfully-named Ever Victorious Army in support of the Manchu dynasty), to his anti-slavery campaigns in Africa, before he lost his life to the Mahdi's Ansar in ill-fated British support of Ottoman control over the Sudan.

But it is Gordon's character that is even more interesting. His personality displays numerous apparent contradictions. Pride and arrogance with humility, compassion with ruthlessness, discipline with rebelliousness. And these contradictions are all-too-apparent in the circumstances of his death: defending a corrupt administration - which he loathed - against a nationalist liberation movement.

Before accepting his fatal mission to Sudan, Gordon had been considering a senior role in King Leopold's so-called Congo Free State. It is fascinating to speculate how this deeply religious and compassionate man would have dealt with arch-mercenary Leopold's brutal administration. Another misfit, Roger Casement, came and went through the Belgian Congo before achieving fame in the campaign against the exploitation of the Putumayo Indians in the Amazon, and notoriety (and subsequent execution) for treason.

And therein lies both the charm and the weakness of misfits: their stubborn refusal to conform to expectations, their unpredictability. As a stereotype, "misfit" is meaningless, but "Mercenary. Missionary and everybody else" doesn't quite have the same ring to it, and certainly wouldn't support academic analysis.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Africans frequently lament the tendency by non-Africans (especially in the media) to regard Africa as a single entity - and to extrapolate the problems in one country - it could be Congo, or Sudan, or Zimbabwe, or Somalia, depending on where the news is worst - to the entire continent.

They do so with good reason. Africa is an extremely diverse continent, and its diversity is exemplified by the extraordinary number of languages - and language types - spoken across the continent. Wikipedia informs us that there are at least 2,000 separate languages in Africa (about 30% of the world's total) with numerous different roots. For students of linguistics, Africa is fertile ground, in particular because of the number of creole languages which have developed from trading pidgins. I became interested in pidgins and creoles perforce - as Peter Muhlhauser's (my linguistics tutor at university) principal area of research was in the structure of new languages (creoles) developing from pidgins.

My first actual acquaintance with a real creole language was in Sierra Leone in 2005. Krio is widely spoken throughout Sierra Leone - a creole language based on English but with a structure similar to the Yoruba language from Nigeria. Krio's origins lie in Sierra Leone's history as a home for freed slaves, the first wave of whom returned to the West African country from Nova Scotia in Canada. The story of the founding of Sierra Leone is told in Adam Hochschild's brilliant history of the campaign against slavery, Bury the Chains, though the legacy of krio as a fusion between the English spoken by the returnees and the indigenous languages spoken by Sierra Leone's population at the time is not mentioned in his compelling book. While moving from meeting to meeting in ancient Freetown taxis, I kept hearing the same catchy but incomprehensible song on the radio, which, the taxi driver informed me, was called Tutu Pati, by Sierra Leone's most popular musician, Emmerson. Subsequent enquiry revealed that Emmerson's enormous popularity was partly derived from his campaign against corruption, and that he had released an album entitled Borbor Bele (picture attached) in which the title song condemned corrupt governmental officials who steal public resources and grow fat on their ill-gotten gains (hence the Bele of the title).

Not surprisingly, given the colossal number of distinct languages, language policy forms an important element in education and nation-building in modern Africa. Most countries elected to use the former colonial power's language for government, a decision which - despite the manifold advantages of using a widely-understood global language - did little to build a sense of unity among the various tribes that make up most if not all modern African nations. In this context, Julius Nyerere's most lasting legacy as the first leader of Tanzania will probably be the adoption of Kiswahili as the country's official language. Doubtless it is no coincidence that Tanzania has suffered less inter-ethnic conflict than most if not all other African states since independence, despite its multi-ethnic population. Unlike most "official" languages, Kiswahili is the language of the people - and not of either the ruling class or of a particular ethnic group.

On a lighter note, African English (as spoken in East Africa) has thrown up a variety of new words and usages. Among my favourites are the verb "jubilate", an amalgam of celebrate and jubilant): "the demonstrators jubilated when their leader got up to speak", and the verb "avail" used with the meaning of making oneself available. "The particpants in the workshop are requested to avail themselves for a group photo at 10.30 am".

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Christmas holidays, December 1975: not much to do on a cold winter's day and, back then, only three TV channels to choose from on our recently-acquired colour TV. The film Khartoum on BBC2, starring Charlton Heston as Gordon and (in retrospect the absurdly-cast) Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi. For a 13-year old boy, despite the longueurs of political debate, it was gripping stuff, made all the more poignant by Gordon's final and heroic defeat......

I did not imagine then that 17 years later I would relocate to Khartoum, as Oxfam’s Finance and Administration Manager for Sudan. I arrived in the sweltering heat of the Sudanese summer on 29 June 1992. It was an inauspicious start: my luggage failed to arrive with me. Perhaps because it was my first expatriate home, I have special, vivid and affectionate memories of Khartoum. It is an ugly, sprawling city, redeemed only by the Nile, but also exotic, a place of great excitement for a young man whose ideals were not yet sullied by the shades of grey of experience.

I remember the environment: the horrors of the rainy season, when the city roads fill with stagnant water, mosquitoes abound and the humidity is almost unbearable; my first haboob (sandstorm), which sounds almost romantic, after a Lawrence of Arabia fashion, but which in fact is desperately unpleasant; and the white-robed men and elegant women, resplendent in gaudy toobs, walking together in family groups along the banks of the Blue Nile.

I remember food and drink: the delights of Sudanese fresh grapefruit (often the only fruit available in the market), unparalleled in their sweet yet astringent flavour and juice; the joy of the short Sudanese winter, when a glut of fresh vegetables appeared in the market, grown on the white Nile flood plain; drinking jugfuls of karkade (hibiscus juice) at the Sudan Club after a breathless game of squash in the baking heat; delighting in the morning fathur (a mid-morning breakfast) at about 10 am, of ful, taammiyya and delicious baba ghanoush; and feasting on fried chicken from Khartoum 2.

I remember friends: Rachel Lyon whose energy, determination and commitment at the Sudan Council of Churches was testament to her zest for life; Robert Maletta, photographer, writer and sometime Country Representative for Oxfam; Manal Hassanein, proud Nubian first, Sudanese second, my Arabic Teacher, lessons at her family home in dusty Erkowit; and evenings at Tom and Olivier’s apartment in Khartoum 2, eating, drinking, playing bridge and solving the problems of the world, before the hasty departure to beat the midnight curfew.

I remember places: a visit to the sad township of Jebel Awlia on the outskirts of the city, where the displaced from the civil war in southern Sudan lived in the most miserable of conditions; the neatness of Khartoum University with its incongruous statue of Gordon; driving across the Omdurman bridge, past Mogren point and its decrepit fairground attractions, towards the silver dome of the Mahdi’s tomb; the turmoil of Omdurman souk; and the Friday evening drive to witness the strange sunset sufi darweesh whirling dances and ceremonies.

I remember events: the excitement of Pope John Paul’s visit to Khartoum in early 1993 and his celebratory mass at Green Park, attended by hundreds of thousands of Sudanese Christians, in reverence and quiet pride; meeting Helen Fielding, before she became famous for the creation of Bridget Jones, researching her prescient satire of the aid industry in the much under-rated novel Cause Celeb; the heat and boredom of the interminable opening of the Ministry of Agricultural and Livestock Resources; and the drums and exuberance of an Eritrean wedding reception.

Oddly, despite these, and many more, vivid memories, I have not enjoyed my occasional return visits to Khartoum in the intervening years. For the most part, my memories are of the good, of a selective set of snapshots, impossible to recapture, and no more real than the fictional cinema depiction of Gordon’s last stand in Khartoum which so fired my 13 year old imagination.

The reality is that there are many bad things too, and these have not changed.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Traffic jam, to be precise. From Cairo to the Cape, from Dakar to Khartoum, the continent’s capital cities are, more often than not, in a jam. The one exception to this rule was Harare: sadly only because Zimbabwe’s petrol pumps ran dry. Instead, one would see lengthy queues of stationery vehicles outside fuel stations, waiting for days for fuel deliveries.

For many years, I considered Nairobi jams to be the worst, but first Lagos and now Kampala top my mental chart. There are parts of Kampala (Kibuye, Kabalagala, Bwaise) which are almost permanently at gridlock. The four ingredients which combine to make Kampala jams so unpleasant are the disregard for almost all driving etiquette, an absence of any apparent controls over the issue of driving permits and roadworthiness of vehicles, the prevalence of boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) weaving through congested traffic, and hot weather. Add in the frequency with which Government VIPs sweep by the waiting traffic, preceded by brutish sirens, motorcycle outriders and armed police escorts, with a few opportunists following the cavalcade, and Kampala’s odious traffic jam recipe is complete. It is without a doubt the least attractive aspect of living in this city.

There’s a famous Disney cartoon, Motor Mania, one of the first episodes in the "Goofy the Everyman" series. In this cartoon, Goofy undergoes a Jekyll and Hyde transformation when he gets behind the wheel, from a mild-mannered family man to an aggressive beast, and provides a lesson in how not to drive safely. Sadly, we are all Goofys on Kampala roads. Polite drivers have no chance. It is perhaps a lesson in life: in Kampala, one has to seize opportunities when they present themselves. The extraordinary thing is that all the attrition and aggression this results in does not cause more road rage incidents.

And with 50-100 imported vehicles registered every day, it is hard to see how the traffic situation is going to improve. There is little that can be done to improve Kampala’s road network, so the only solutions in the long term must be a switch to public transport (unthinkable) or a switch from four to two wheels. 18 years ago, when I visited Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, I was struck by the fact that “le moto” appeared the main mode of transport. I saw this again in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam six years ago, where waves of slow-moving motorcycles dominate the city roads. Kampala is an obvious candidate to switch from four to two wheels – I have been giving it considerable thought in recent weeks as my journey to and from the office becomes slower and more unpleasant almost by the day.