PICS: Africa, a continent with many personalities
Comparisons may be odious, but they are inevitable when you visit other countries. Having just returned from West Africa, here are some of my impressions, both positive and negative.
Let’s start with the work ethic, a factor which drives the economy of any country, helping to keep it financially stable. While this may be simplistic, it cannot be overlooked.
While most South Africans work hard, they probably would not consider throwing themselves into some of the jobs I saw undertaken with enthusiasm and dedication.
For example, in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, several men up to their chests in water were repairing a rusty barge, which may have been despatched to the scrapyard in this country.
This welding seemed dangerous. Sparks flew as they held their oxyacetylene torches above the water. None wore protective masks.
Then there were the rock breakers, also in Sierra Leone, living on the fringes of shallow quarries, painstakingly hammering and chipping to produce piles of rocks of all sizes.
Our guide told us they sold these to people who were building houses. Men and women were involved.
Nearby are makeshift shelters - sometimes just a piece of material hanging from a rope adjoining a piece of wood or metal. Protection is minimal. Yet this is their home. The workers are thin but muscular from their labour.
The women carry piles of rocks in metal basins on their heads, cook meagre meals or do washing in buckets.
Clearly, rock-breaking is hard work. Yet as they hammer, many sing or keep a metronomic beat in counterpoint to each other, making music out of stone.
Freetown has many blackouts. Our power failures of recent years pale into insignificance by comparison.
Most hotels have noisy generators, which kick in every night to power the air-conditioners and geysers providing hot water, an essential for pampered tourists.
Pounding throughout the night, these ensure that while you might have comfort, sleep will not be possible.
I would prefer to keep windows open (they are all meshed due to mosquitos) enjoy the night air - even if it is a hot breeze - and get a good sleep.
My South African roots excited many locals. It is mainly our businessmen who head to West Africa and they tend to only visit the cities.
“Mama Africa” the locals often called to me, having learned where I was from.
Earlier this year, Sierra Leone was in the news for a landslide which enveloped a residential area, causing many deaths. The scar is still visible - red against the green undergrowth, a reminder of how cutting down the forests has caused deadly erosion.
The traffic is congested in the cities as the roads are narrow.
We did not visit Conakry, the capital of Guinea, but were told it rests on mountains of rubbish and it can take two hours to get a short distance to and from work each day.
As in any other place, there are selfish drivers who cause gridlock at intersections. But somehow the West Africans untangle it without the aid of a traffic officer - or violence.
In Cap Skirring, a popular, beach-fringed headland in Senegal, fishermen row heavy pirogues (boats) and locals throng to bargain for the catch on their return.
Unsold fish find their way onto drying racks, ultimately to be shipped to markets in adjoining Guinea-Bissau or Ghana. The stench and the flies are overpowering.
Hooded vultures strut the beaches in droves, picking up offal from gutted fish.
Nobody bats an eyelid. It’s a symbiotic relationship and without nature’s clean-up brigade, sickness would probably be rife.
In Cap Skirring, we also encountered tourism of a different sort. Young men link up with visiting female tourists. Many an older white woman is seen walking along the beach with a man in tow.
One man told me: “My South African grand-mère (bear in mind French is spoken in Senegal, Guinea and Sierra Leone), it’s like this,” he said. “Some of these women come here just to have a fling with an African man. He will escort her, take her to dinner, dance with her. She pays for everything. Then she goes home.
“Another kind of woman comes here with different intentions. She may set up a young man with a small house and a car, or a tiny business, then go home feeling she has uplifted someone.
“Sadly, many of these men drink heavily and sell the house and car.”
Men sit mending nets. Interestingly, the weave is fairly large, allowing smaller fish to escape. Obviously these fishermen are mindful of taking only bigger fish, allowing the little ones to slip through the net, to grow and breed.
South African health inspectors would be aghast at the open-air markets on busy roads in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau.
Vendors sit cheek by jowl, nearly all selling the same wares, amid rubbish, flies, mud and potholes filled with water.
There is a frenzied air of activity. People on motorcycles weave at great speed; others with laden wheelbarrows or trolleys race through the congestion.
Shoppers need to keep their eyes open and leap nimbly aside to avoid being mowed down. Some people carry mountains of clothes for sale on coat-hangers.
Fruit, vegetables (most of which look freshly picked) eggs, bread, sheep, chicken and goats are all on sale, as well as a multitude of household goods, clothes and life’s necessities.
Nobody tried to rip us off because we were tourists. The prices quoted were the same as for the locals.
Despite the poverty, we encountered beggars only in Senegal, the one country in the region most visited by tourists.
One evening, setting up camp in the bush adjoining a village, two young boys came to show us their artwork drawn on simple exercise book pages.
One was probably only 10 years old but his skill and attention to detail (he’d captured a scene of tourists lying on the ground studying birds through binoculars, while some antelope in the clearing, looked on nervously) was incredible. We bought some, pinning them up in our truck to enjoy.
West African women - tall, erect, and stately, many with finely sculpted features - are beautifully turned out.
They might own only one outfit, but they carry it with panache. They clearly relish vibrant colours, flamboyant sleeves and frills.
The further north one travels, the more Islam is evident, and these women are given to glitter in their outfits.
Wander onto a back street and you will probably encounter women pounding corn or preparing a steaming pot of tea.
Invariably they will invite you to join them. They don’t have much, but what they have they are keen to share.
Visiting one village school, the politeness of the children was remarkable. Every boy and girl in the classroom leapt to their feet, stood to attention, and chanted “Good morning, Madam.”
I was led to a desk at the back of the class. Hands flew into the air - all wanted to show their prowess at multiplication on the blackboard.
Then it was my turn and, thankfully, I got it right. The children watched puzzled as I came to the same answer as them, using a formula we were taught long ago.
Staying with the locals in the Fouta Djallon area of Guinea was memorable. The villages were immaculate, our guest house gaily painted, and the food delicious.
Guides took us hiking into the escarpment where the Gambia River has its source.
In the evening, the women and children arrived to sing and dance. Their “drum” was a 10-litre plastic water container and the most entertaining dance imitated leaping frogs.
The children played clapping games with us - the kind of entertainment we have long left behind us.
Their sheer joy reminded us that our sophistication had removed us from such simple pleasures, perhaps to our detriment.
We threw the windows open at night and listened to the night sounds.
Guinea-Bissau, once admin-istered by the Portuguese, seems to be the cleanest country in West Africa.
In Senegal, the rubbish and smells are pervasive, with mounds of plastic and rotting food in every village. The dump is often in the midst of the dwellings.
That said, the former capital of French West Africa, St Louis, which is enormously popular with tourists, is an island of well manicured cleanliness.