A new growth strategy for Africa (and it’s easy!)

There are only a few things which give sub-Saharan Africa a sense of common identity. One of them is police road blocks. Every road in every country we visited had police road blocks, often many of them. Typically they consist of a flimsy piece of wood flung across two empty metal barrels. But we have also seen stones placed on the road, cardboard boxes, or just a table and a chair on the side of the road. The policemen who man the roadblocks vary from the smart uniformed (and usually heavily armed) type to the dishevelled tramp type with shirt unbuttoned and a sleepy, faintly annoyed look.

We usually encounter two types of situations. Some policemen are very inquisitive and nitpicky – obviously after a bribe. During the Christmas period they even lose whatever reserve they might have had to ask for their “Christmas present” outright. Others are slouched at their desk and not too thrilled at having been woken up by the rare car driving past their forgotten road blocks. They typically wave us on with a grouchy look on their faces.

After crossing, probably, well over a hundred road blocks, I still struggle to understand their function – and value. On the 200km run from Kumasi to Takoradi in Ghana, we counted no less than 13 road blocks – each one of them delaying us for 3-5mn. At an average speed of 40km and hour, the time wasted by road blocks represented 15% of our total journey time that day.

Therefore,assuming that wasted time could be spent productively, Africa has a simple solution to instantaneously increase its GDP by 15% (and that’s not even counting the savings from not doing the road blocks!).

Uganda: to the Far North

It is a 12 hour drive from Mount Elgon, on bumpy roads, to reach the far north of Uganda, on the border with South Sudan. That area, the poorest in Uganda, had been off-limits to visitors for many years. From the spillover of the civil war in the Sudan to constant armed cattle raids by warlike Karamajong tribesmen, to the occasional incursion by Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, this was not your typical  safari destination.

Now with South Sudan having successfully seceded from the north, the LRA on the run and the government’s disarmament program in full force, the north is once again safe to visit, though few people seem aware of this.

Kidepo National Park is a magical place. A green valley surrounded by jagged mountains, seemingly devoid of human presence and home to East Africa’s largest herd of buffalo.

an encounter with 1000 buffalo
digging us out of a hole

We spend a few days alone in a wonderfully remote and basic wilderness camp, Nga Moru. A hidden piece of paradise on the edge of the park, owned by passionate Rhodesian-South African conservationists, Patrick and Lyn. Animals, unused to people, behave strangely here…On a bush walk, we get within 30m of a group of giraffe. And two curious youngsters come tantalizingly close to check us out – perhaps 15m away.

As we are driving in a remote part of the park, a huge python (3m or more in length), normally a tree dweller, slithers languidly across the track in front of our car. We find a big group of buffalo, at least 1000-strong, moving through the savannah like menacing dark waves at twilight in the ocean. After cutting through the group with our car, we get chased by several of the beasts. They stand on the roadside, let us pass and then make a show of charging us.

meeting with giraffe
the basic comforts of Nga Moru

Tanzania: lost empire

We drive two hours from Dar to the small town of Bagamoyo, where we spend a night.

Originally an Omani Arab settlement, it was the coastal terminus of the slave and ivory caravans from the interior in the 19th century. It also briefly was, from 1888 to 1890, the headquarters of the German East Africa Company (and as such, the colony’s de facto capital). Its brief period of fame gave birth to some spectacular buildings, including East Africa’s largest Catholic church.

the Holy Ghost mission, East Africa’s oldest cathedral
ill-fated windows at the Boma (Government House)

Emin Pasha, a German adventurer who was besieged during the Mahdist rebellion in the Sudan came to Bagamoyo after being rescued by Henry Stanley in 1890. During the celebrations in his honour, he stepped through a window which he mistook for an opening to a balcony and almost fell to his death.

fish market, and site of the old slave market

Sleepy and laid back today, it still has a faint echo of the old German imperial presence. A few run-down colonial buildings and a cemetery with 20 tombstones bearing Germanic names. Long-forgotten soldiers fallen more than a century ago fighting wars that did not matter to them.

only the ghosts of long-gone Germans are left in Bagamoyo
German war cemetery

Intermission: back to the (concrete) jungle

Andre teleports back to Hong Kong (albeit using archaic technology which results in a 23 hour journey back !) to wrap up some business at the Company while the Laura and the boys stay at Nungwi Beach, on the Indian Ocean, in Zanzibar.

The journey from Chek Lap Kok airport to Central is quite surreal. Flat roads (no potholes, no bumps !), gleaming new cars, billboards advertising luxury brands (the new opium!) . It takes me only a couple of days to be back on modern time.

Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest peak, on my long return journey to Asia

In Africa, I had made Time my friend, rather than a target to be achieved or challenged. Here, it only takes me two days to start wrestling with Time again, seldom coming out on top.