Thursday, 18 March 2010

A common agenda for an uncommon people

I attended the East African Community’s rail conference in Dar es Salaam last week. As EAC integration makes its slow steady progress (much like the railways) there is increasing talk of the significance of this regional merger. A single market! A larger customer base! Greater movement of people and goods! A stronger political force in international fora! A single currency! (The Greeks may cringe at the last one)…

As I milled about with representatives from the five nations (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda) as well as co-sponsor delegates from the World Bank, it occurred to me that whilst it’s wonderful to see African neighbours attempt to collaborate for mutual benefits - I am of Eritrean origin so a particularly poignant sight for me- there is a risk that this political and economic marriage may exaggerate similarities between these very distinct parties in the minds of others. For ‘others’, read ‘The West’ and, as no serious conversation regarding Africa can now take place without reference to China, also ‘The East’.

Too often in the past and in the present, Africa has been presented as a homogenous place plagued by famine, corruption, war but blessed with exotic people and wildlife. Once a rather handsome West Indian asked me if I spoke ‘African’… I was far too enamoured to be rude but let him know that there were nine languages (NB not dialects) spoken in my tiny country of four million people and I only spoke one of them – and not as well as I’d like either.

Now – for those investors whose interests are piqued (as they should be) by the potential of the EAC and the promising GDP growth rates that have remained largely resistant to the credit crunch, please note: diversity is the one consistent feature in Africa.

This has been firmly brought to light in my time here in Dar es Salaam following my time working in Kenya and a very brief jaunt in Uganda. The people, the politics, the language, the attitudes are as far apart as the breath taking wide landscape allows. Call a Canadian an American, and I guarantee they won’t jump on you half as fast as a Tanzanian would if you had the audacity to bracket them with Kenyans. Tanzanians are not only a different kettle of fish, the distinctions within the nation are also significant. In fact, these virtual and cultural intra-national boundaries are as strong if not stronger than those between North and South Londoners (South rules!) or Brooklyn and Manhattan or ‘insert example of your own’.

So what to do?

Don’t assume: respect these important, ingrained distinctions; use on the ground intelligence; leverage local relationships and speak to those in the know – preferably face to face. An improved physical infrastructure will facilitate greater mixing but East Africa will never be a uniform mass despite its uniformly poor rail service.

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