Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #5: Back to Africa, again

Africa is a massive continent and its countries have incredible variations.

I’m really pleased that my first visit to Africa wasn’t as an IMF staff member; it pays to see things from a different perspective. Having said that, I’d gone to the continent first as a staff member of the Bank of England, as a footballer, mainly, during an international 40th anniversary celebration of Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) in the mid-1980s. Its highlight was playing the top two teams in the country, Silver Strikers (sponsored by the RBM, which had started as a social club for central bank staff) in the ‘Silver stadium‘ in Lilongwe, with a crowd of about 20,000 and live radio broadcast. Nothing like hearing your name over the loudspeaker: “Dennis Jones…on the ball…” 🙂 We also played the many-times national champions, Bata (now ‘Big’) Bullets in Blantyre, the other main city.

What was incredible about these matches was our opponents included several national team players, some of whom had trained in Brazil. They were shocked that our team had players in or over their late-20s; for them, retirement by 24 was normal. It was also an exhausting experience to play football at altitude, both dealing with a ball that flew so fast and far, and sucking on thin air. Lilongwe is on a plateau, 1,050 metres (3,440 ft) above sea level. Blantyre lies at an elevation 1,039 metres (3,409 feet).

Three things were extraordinary about Malawi, still under the iron-fist autocratic rule of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. First, was the conservative dress code, notably, the policy that women were expected to dress “modestly”, that is no bare shoulders, and legs covered to below the knee, Second, was the creation (in 1981) of Kamuzu Academy, a private boarding school that was founded by, and named after, Banda, and described by its proponents as “The Eton of Africa”. Third, was Chibuku shake-shake, a beer made from sorghum grain, about which I’ve written before.

But, Fund work sent me to the continent many times.

My first mission was to Kampala, Uganda, doing technical assistance on international reserves, for the Statistics Department, about which I’ve already shared some stories. But, it was where I discovered the ‘double’ massage: two masseuses working the body at once 😳I’d wanted an hour but only a 1/2 hour slot was available, so…Undoubtedly, the best massage ever 👍🏾🤔

I also played squash for the first time on a court with no roof, at the residence of the World Bank country manager. In those days, I travelled with my squash racket like people travel with a tennis racket.

Madagascar was my next place to visit for Fund work, negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program; my responsibilities were for the balance of payments and external debt (I was working in the Fund’s Policy Development and Review Department (PDR), which developed and oversaw the application of Fund policies, including reviewing mission briefings and staff documents at HQ, and on missions being a mix of ‘internal audit’, ‘policy integrity’, expertise on all things general policy, and working on the external accounts). It’s an odd situation to be part of mission teams, but not working to the dictates of the country department, but being ‘above’ them in many ways, representing the institution. My love (not) of doing debt sustainability analyses began there 😦

Madagascar is an island, to the east of the continental land mass and its population has ethnic traits from across the Indian Ocean. It’s the source of most of the world’s vanilla—originally from the Americas and now the 2nd most expensive spice in the world (after saffron). It’s losing its forests at an alarming rate—1-2% a year, and up to 90% of forests are burned each year. It has some of the world’s rarest and most-threatened species of animals and plant life. I was thrilled to see lemurs in the wild.

It’s where I had to work in French for the first time and in a country with long family names, the longest recorded being Andrianampoinimerinatompokoindrindra, you can imagine note-taking wasn’t a breeze. Its capital, Antananarivo, is referred to as ‘Tana. My notes were filled with ‘FM A said’ etc, ie finance minister [name]. It’s another elevated capital, and sits at 1,280 menters (4,199 ft) above sea level in the centre of the island. When I worked there, Marc Ravalomanana, a Malagasy entrepreneur and politician was president of Madagascar, having won election in 2002.

Mauritania always sticks in my mind because of Saharan sand in Nouakchott and because desert life is so different from anything else. For example, at the weekend, residents of Nouakchott prefer to head into the desert instead of to the beach. Pitching a tent and cooking lamb (méchoui) under the open sky, and in relative solitude.

Its ethnic mix is mainly Moors, originating from the north, and black Africans. originating from the south.

It’s a country where slavery was only outlawed in 1981, but is practised nationwide.

My missions there were negotiating a Poverty Reduction and Growth program, and I was again Mr. Balance of Payments and Debt. It’s where I was on 9/11/2001. I was recently kicking the French by now, and its use as one of my working languages was now well-established.

It was where I first saw a parallel exchange rate market working, live and large, in the streets and shops with rates calculated rapidly on calculators and money exchanged in huge volumes.

It’s where I experienced my first sandstorms and happened to be out running with my colleague to and from the airport one morning, and we had to navigate by sound and our voices. It‘s where I first saw women openly vilified for running and chastised for their wearing athletic gear, even long pants and long sleeves.

Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was president during my mission (having held office since 1984).

Guinea will feature more in its own right, because of my living there for nearly 4 years as the IMF’s resident representative. Sierra Leone will also feature apart as I had dual responsibilities as resident representative there, though non-resident. Travel between these neighbouring countries was not easy, and complicated because vehicles drive on the right in Guinea and on the left in Sierra Leone, and crossing the borders was always fun for the first 10 minutes.

Angola’s capital Luanda, has long had the reputation of being the most expensive city in the world. Coming out of the chaos of civil war in the mid-1970s and discovering oil, shortages and expatriates with high incomes made for a spiralling of costs, most notably for rental accommodation. Oil wealth does odd things to property values. I knew no Portuguese, and fortunately could work in English. I was on only one mission to Luanda (again, for PDR), not long after the end of my res rep assignment in late-2006. The odd thing about it was the authorities did not want a mission at that time and were not at all interested in borrowing from the Fund, but, we went through our hoops and loops. Though Fund thoughts were on a post-oil future, oil revenues were still gushing. So, it goes, sometimes, when economics and politics are at loggerheads.

South Africa was a transit point for the mission to Angola and also some regional meetings. I stayed in Johannesburg and had the chance to visit Cape Town, see Table Top Mountain and penguins at the Cape of Good Hope. I also got to see what a plane load of off-duty oil sector workers looks like on a long-distance flight from there to London. If you cannot take the liquor bought in duty-free onto the flight, what else to do but drink it before getting on the plane. To say the sight and sound of jolly, drunken British oil riggers for over 8 hours is not my idea of fun is an understatement!

Libya holds a special place as we visited soon after the embargo on US travel was lifted (February 2004). I met ‘Brother Leader’, Colonel Ghadaffi, who spoke to a conference of African central bank governors. Rhian was just 6 months old and she (one of the first Americans to visit) and Therese came along for the junket.

We had to fly from Conakry to London to Tripoli. On arrival, we were met at the plane door by Libyan officials and whisked through security to a VIP lounge. We waited there while other people arrived, some I recognized as governors. When the ‘group’ was complete, we were ushered out to a fleet of black Mercedes outside the airport arrivals. We got into the back of our car and greeted our driver. I don’t speak Arabic, so I used English and French. Then, off we sped, and I mean sped. Motorcycle outriders cleared our route as we hurtled along at 140 km an hour into Tripoli 😳‘This is new’ was the expression on our faces; Rhian was blissfully ignorant. We pulled up at a glitzy 5-star hotel that was the conference venue,checked in and went to our palatial room. Not bad!

Libya is strictly Muslim, and though Guinea is predominantly Muslim, Islam is practised there with a lighter touch, eg its main domestic business is beer making 🤔😳🍺 It took some getting used to having fake gin and tonic. More than any of the other Muslim countries, I’ve visited, with maybe the exception of Mauritania, Libya is incredibly chauvinistic, and my wife couldn’t stop marvelling at men alone sitting at tables of coffee shops, and women, alone, seen in markets and stores.

But, as trips went, the visit was on a different plane for splendor and history and political enigma. My baby daughter became a star and featured in lots of pictures being passed around by central bank governors 🙂 I suspect she recalls nothing about visiting the old Roman city of Leptis Magna.

Morocco was never a work location, but a favourite stopover en route to/from Mauritania, because a Tunisian colleague and I loved the food and feel of Casablanca. No Bogart-like experiences with Lauren Bacall. I discovered the literally moorish delights of pastillia. 

To offset that, I have fond memories of being steamed and massaged in a hammam.

Sénégal was also not a work location but Dakar was a transit point for Guinea and South Africa. We took a vacation there from Guinea, made better because the Fund rep there was a good friend and a Guinean, Ousmane Doré, who later was Guinea’s finance and planning minister (2007), and whose residence became our ‘hotel’.

In Sénégal, we visited Goree Island (Île de Gorée) the site from where slaves were shipped across the Atlantic during the 15th-19th centuries —a hard emotional visit as tourists. 😩

No two countries the same or remotely similar.

#WhetherJamaica and #shithole countries?

While POTUS45 was thinking of yet another way to insult a large swathe of black people (and I’m sad that my good friends in Norway were unwittingly dragged into this swim in the swamp), I was having lunch with some francophone friends and discussing something I found intriguing with a Haitian friend. In our conversation, we talked about what it was like for her to be exiled in Jamaica from her homeland as a child and trying to find her ‘way back home’ after growing up through the nostalgia with your parents and relatives and friends. That was her situation. Mine had parallels, though I had not been exiled, as my parents migrated voluntarily. She lives in Jamaica and has since gone back to Haiti and tried to find ways to make business connections between the two countries.

The point of intrigue was about how countries had wrought their independence from colonial rulers and what had happened to them. I’m tempted to use ‘befall’, but that would suggest absolving those countries from blame for the woes they experienced.

I thought about how Haiti had wrested its independence from France through a slave rebellion starting in the late-18th century, the only state formed after rebelling against colonial masters. I thought about how Guinea had gained its independence in the late-1950s, as the first colonial African country to accept de Gaulle’s offer, with its first president saying famously:

“We prefer poverty in liberty to riches in slavery.”

I thought about Jamaica, getting its independence from Great Britain in the early-1960s.

Each had been described as ‘the pearl’ of the colonies, having been a major supplier of food stuffs and minerals, and each has sank into deep economic crisis compounded by punitive extractive policies by former colonial master, pqpoor budget management, political turmoil (though Jamaica did not have violent changes of political power, though violence associated with its political parties), and social degradation of different degrees, leaving each much poorer than its resources and location would have predicted.

There’s a lot to the history of how each went from glory to gory, but how fitting that they could be summarily described as #shithole countries by the person whom many see as leader of the ‘free world’–not a view I have, but that’s me.

Sadly, many, including current and past citizens as well as visitors would agree with that description of each country. I don’t feel that way about any of them, though, I’ve not lived in or visited Haiti, so cannot base my views on anything I know personally.

The debate about the US president’s comments will rage on. The lives of people in these countries will go on. It’ll be interesting to see where views settle on whether truth was spoken or insults made.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”–attributed to Spanish-American philosopher, George Santanya.

Those Americans who forget that many of them and/or many of their ancestors came from the world’s #shithole countries expose themselves in ways that are all too obvious.

Namaste!

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