Friday, February 19, 2010

A Trip to Africa (1)

The Johannesburg airport was very efficient. Within 20 minutes of arrival my driver had my luggage in the trunk of his Toyota. Charles was a very jolly and polite Afrikaner. As we drove aboveground told me about being shot by a white man and saved by a black, about being carjacked when he stumbled between a renegade Zimbabwean soldier and his payroll robbery (he'd had to tell the man how to start the car), and how his injuries and life had been turned around by ballroom dance.

We drove to the Hilton in Sandton, the well-scrubbed and well-guarded enclave where people in my situation usually start. Dinner at a Thai restaurant in Nelson Mandela Square. My host, a Nigerian, displayed his countrymen's passion for meat, and their fearless ambition to shake things up. He has plans to build at least a half-dozen new enterprises in what he sees as a continent made new.

There is a growing consumer market here, and people keen to explore and exploit it. A market researcher named Hubert talks about the entertainment business, and the appeal that gangsta life, the guns and the coke dealing and the bling, holds for hundreds of thousands of young Africans. "It gives them a dream of something better." He meant a hunger for brands, products. I think he is correct.

Another visit, this one to manager at cellular phone company Vodacom. He discusses his company's business in Congo, where the armies of at least five nations are at war. Ten years ago there were 3,000 fixed lines in Congo, and less conflict. Now there are 2 million mobile phones. He taps his laptop and shows me a picture of Vodacom's Kinshasa headquarters: a tall glass buildings with an ugly black hole in the upper left corner. Three weeks before, a Russian-made tank pulled in front of the building and fired a round through it. It was the ruling power, looking for an opposition leader. "It was an honest mistake, they have apologized and they will pay for the damage," he says. "We are still friends."

You will notice, he says, that they did not shoot our switches. The army needs cell phones too. I also notice how calm he is about the whole affair, and wonder what kind of profits it takes for that to happen.

He taps another picture, a rural peasant in front of a big tree. The man had climbed 20 meters into the tree, until he was able to get a signal on his cell phone. He then built a treehouse at that height, and now charges his neighbors to climb up there and make a phone call. That, multiplied by 2 million, is why Vodacom wants to be in Congo, why he is humors a ruling power that shells him. This 45 year-old engineer, high in his Joburg office, is clearly having the time of his life.

One of new Africa's strengths may be individuality. "One thing is for sure," the Nigerian says, "at this point, nobody expects anything from their government.'

A famous restaurant in Soweto. As the center of the anti-Apartheid struggle, Soweto is Africa's most famous ghetto. We lunch in between busloads of tourists there to experience the slum that was the center of the struggle. My host, and Anglo-Ghanaian, was slightly embarrassed. At least, he pointed out to me on our way out, the second busload consisted of American blacks, not middle-aged American whites.

The nuisance bird here, the crow and the jay, is a medium-sized gray ibis. They tend to stay on the lawns, and off the high walls around every home and business – too much barbed wire and jagged glass. The birds have that same honking screech as our American birds, though they are even more oblivious and bold.

Business signs: "Security and house cleaning." "Firearms training and mobile phones."

It is 2 AM at a Johannesburg dance club. It is completely mixed black and white, everyone welcome and basking in the dream of unity and reconciliation, the best and most powerful part of the country's new political identity. The owner, a Frenchman, tells me that his club is South Africa's biggest importer of Veuve Cliquot champagne. One of the dancers shouts into my ear, barely loud enough to be heard: "You know what ended Apartheid? Brands. Nike. Coke. Everyone agreed on that." Brands, he thinks, will be the new music publishers, purveyors of all sorts of information. They are how we will organize out lives.

If brands unify the top of the New South Africa, poverty is the threatening source of rage. There is 27% unemployment, 90% in remote areas. It is the counterpart to the promise of healing, and it is not just a national problem, nor at a caliber most Americans understand. There are AK-47s left over from the horrible last years of apartheid, more guns from the wars in Mozambique and Angola, men with government-issued guns drifting down from the unraveling of Zimbabwe. And of course, guns issued to the many private security services. I go to dinner at friend's house and pass three security checkpoints and two spiked walls. At the heart of all the security is by all appearances a middle class English home, decorated with tasteful African carvings and baskets.

I ask my Ghanaian friend what it is like to be in a business that seems so promising, with the knowledge that 25% of his audience has AIDS. "Well, they will die," he says with a matter-of-fact seriousness. "Other people will take their place."

And he is right, I realize: Sentimentality is a luxury commodity. In the past 15 years, 5.3 million people have been killed in just six wars here – almost twice the number of slaves transported to North America from West Africa in all the centuries of slavery. To move forward, sentimentality is forbidden.

Before I left, many people who had been to Africa would at some point grow slightly misty and distant, and would tell me how it would "change" me. Meaning that my humanity would deepen by my witnessing timeless suffering; I would bear silent awe at the power to continue in the face of so much poverty and dashed hope. Such feelings are true, possibly even ennobling. But they came from people who were in this landscape by choice, and with their nobility was mindful of nearby air conditioners and potable water.

A farmer outside of Johannesburg is in some ways like a farmer everywhere: Business is terrible. The costs are killing him. He proudly displays an expensive and brand-new barn. Fearful of robberies, his field hands are no longer paid in cash, but instead now collect wages of about $200 via messages into their cell phones and ATM cards. The workers tell me the like it much better, though the illiterate ones have a hard time memorizing the prompting commands on the phones.

We fly north towards Ghana over tabletop land. Away from Johannesburg's hills of sand -- tailings from the mines, even in town -- the land is flat and empty. I look for habitation or a road as the sun goes down and we fly into Namibia. For more than an hour there is nothing. Later I spy a light in the darkness, a straight string of lights – a town, a village in the early dark. I imagine people gathering at the end of the weekend, the expectation of cars coming home. Then another string of lights, a perfect line, and then a crosshatch of orange lights with a green glow at each end. They are oil rigs, Angola's offshore oil bonanza. We are over the Atlantic.

We get off the plane in Accra at 10 PM to a punishing, puzzling humidity – such forceful heat that you want an explanation. Immigration officers display the storied national trait of hospitality and banter. A sign behind them encourages pedophiles to return home. Another reads "Smuggling? You will be caught – good luck," which seems excessively sporting.

I check into my hotel, a complex by the ocean with uneven Internet access. The phone rings at 2.30 AM. "Sir, I need the details of the woman you are with." -?- "…do I have the right person…sir, do you have a hat?" -?- "I am very sorry sir, I have the wrong room." The phone rings again a moment later. "Sir there is a woman who wishes to knock on your door. We have sent her away."

I lie awake for a long time, attuned to the meaningless and the sinister in a country I will not understand.

The morning radio leads with news of a trade fair – that Socialist-minded kind of prioritizing I remember from Singapore, and other remnant nations of the Empire. It adapted well from colonialism to self-rule. Still, it feels better than listening to the next station on the dial, a rapid and rugged French that I can't understand – signals from Cote d'Ivoire, now at the tail end of its civil war.

The hotel contains convention rooms, a business center, three restaurants, a bar, a business center, and twin guard towers flanking the beach side corners. Much of the time I am the only guest, and the guard is kind about letting me share the view from her post. A half-dozen of 20 tables are set at breakfast, and though the food is excellent we dine in slightly embarrassed melancholy. It is hard not to feel small and somewhat defeated, aware of the old expectations of important events, the commerce and celebrations expected as Ghana found its rightful place on the map.

The best people in places create a mood of waiting for the greatness so powerful that they themselves believe it. The staff responds to them instinctively. Black moths circle in the upper hallway, seeking refuge from daylight.

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