I lived in West Africa 35 years ago, and a recent trip to Guinea reminded me of many things I learned back then and offered new impressions.
Life can be slowed down in inexplicable ways, both good and bad, by transactional costs of daily life —finding a reliable taxi, having to call four times only to have him come 40 minutes late, finding a bank whose automatic teller not only works but has money, resolving problems created by another bank’s machine having kept the card and not producing cash, finding gifts in the market for a loving host family that has welcomed our daughter as she works in the Peace Corps, assessing a cross-country taxi’s reliability over bad roads, getting underway and slaloming around potholes every dozen meters, waiting for cars from the other direction to pass so we can avoid potholes on our side of the road, and arriving and waiting for other people whose lives are similarly encumbered by logistics.
Basic infrastructure, so often taken for granted in developed nations, greatly affects economic development. What business opportunities are thwarted when nobody takes care of roads, when it takes nine hours to drive 180 miles? And how easily we take for granted amenities like paved roads, garbage collection and clean, treated water.
Beauty is everywhere — in a West African morning sunrise in the dry season, when cool air is suffused with mist and dust particles and early morning light and the world glows from within itself and all around me. The beauty of the landscape, the mountains, the roofs and huts and trees. The different kinds of physical beauty of Africa’s many ethnic groups wearing colorful, graceful clothing. The welcoming sound of very early morning calls to prayer.
Knowing simple greetings in a language and culture can open doors toward a shared humanity surprisingly wide. Children — meeting, appreciating, amusing and indulging them — can bridge cultural chasms where language impedes. Many religions and cultures value and cultivate kindness.
Otherwise well-meaning people can be oblivious and careless of the natural environment in ways that can profoundly harm whole ecosystems when that carelessness becomes normalized. The absence of mass transit results in outrageous fossil fuel consumption and impossible traffic.
Many Africans operate at so many different levels of performance and engagement — a mother who prepares meals over a fire for a family of eight also teaches school, a young professional also hauls water when he returns to the family fold.
"Otherism" is alive and well, especially among culturally fragile groups, for whom very common social glue is to define themselves by who doesn’t belong. The Peulo versus animists, Kissi speakers versus Sous-Sous speakers.
A related but wonderful attachment is to one’s family. Little siblings look out for still-younger ones, and older siblings with jobs pay for higher education for their younger siblings.
Colonialism and racism also persist. How un-self-consciously an otherwise-pleasant white Frenchman disparaged African workers helping him on his hotel grounds, and how blind he seemed to his emotional need to assert their insufficiency.
Although materialistic advertisements are rampant, most people we knew ignored the bait, distinguishing what they might want from what they need.
Pervading all interactions, my husband and I received a generous welcome, reminding me again of the warmth I once found in West Africa and was grateful to experience again. I was left wishing only that my country's leaders' sense of global responsibility responded in kind.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
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