You would have thought that in the age of the African Union, our countries would be rolling out the welcome mat for fellow Africans but in many cases, you would be very wrong. By Winnie Odinga
This past holiday season I took a trip with my family to the coastal city of Walvis Bay in Namibia. Namibia is country number 31 on my list. When I say 31, I don’t mean 31 out of 54 African countries but 31 countries visited in the world, most of which are outside this continent.
Why? It’s just too expensive and difficult to travel in Africa.
If you’re reading this anywhere in Africa, think to yourself how many African capital cities you can fly directly to from where you are right now? Now think of how many other world capitals you can fly directly to?
The truth is, travelling within Africa is so difficult that it’s often just plain impossible.
Let’s take our neighbours to the North. Europeans have perfected the art of transportation. Here is a comparison. London to Paris is 288 miles while Accra to Lagos is 285.5 miles. If you decided to drive from London to Paris, it would take you 5h 30 mins (they are two cities separated by The Channel) while it will take you 10+ hours from Accra to Lagos. If you decided to fly the same route, the European trip will cost you under $50 while the African journey would average about $230.
Which begs the question, if the necessity of travelling is still seen as a rich man’s game, how can we expect to develop?
No country in the world has developed as an island cut off from the rest of humanity. Travel and the resulting exchange of cultures, practices and knowledge has always underpinned human development and is responsible for all the progress we are heirs to today.
In the dense jungles of South America, archaeologists have discovered remote tribes that, for centuries, have had no contact with people outside their own small environments. They have reached the level of the Stone Age and not progressed beyond it. They have been cut off from all forms of new ideas so they have just repeated what their ancestors did.
The history of the world has also largely been the history of travel and how new ways of doing things have been transmitted from one part of the world to the other. Europe itself was in the Dark Ages until travellers, merchants and others brought back knowledge of science, mathematics and medicine from the universities of the Muslim world.
Today, as never before, millions of ordinary people can afford to travel the globe and see and experience at first hand how others live and what new marvels they have developed. They return to enrich their own societies with fresh ideas.
During the colonial period, Africans were effectively shut off from access to new ideas and thoughts in the education systems and barred from travelling, even within their own countries lest they acquire ‘dangerous knowledge’ – dangerous for the colonial powers.
You would have thought that with independence, African governments would have embraced the idea of travel and made it as easy as possible for people to move about and explore their own continent, if nothing else.
Closed skies, closed minds
Instead, while the rest of the world has opened its skies, built railways and expressways and seen the value of affordable transportation, African governments have closed their skies, imposed heavy taxes over the use of their airspace and set up a raft of regulations that have made air transport within Africa not only extremely cumbersome but also perhaps the most expensive in the world.
All around the continent, communication and access to knowledge is being stifled. Governments are shutting down, taxing or limiting access to the internet and social media, road and railway projects have stalled because of massive corruption and young Africans are being left to ‘figure it out’.
Basically in Africa you can’t travel, you can’t look at the rest of the world, you can only sit back and watch carefully crafted, ‘culturally safe’ propaganda on the national broadcasting channel and whatever you do, please don’t ask too many questions.
If you land at any international African airport, there is always a dark dingy room around the customs desk full of fellow Africans locked out of countries because they don’t have visas.
Africa is the only continent with straight lines for borders. Communities with deep histories and relations were haphazardly separated during the 1884 Berlin Conference. The separation however, did not mean that their affinity to one another suddenly disintegrated.
Across borders people speak, cook, dance and behave in the same manner. The only difference between the Swahili spoken in DRC, Tanzania and Kenya is that the DRC accent flows with a French flair, the Tanzanian accent has the strongest Arabic base, and the Kenyan Swahili has an English structural influence. The same is similar for hundreds of languages around the continent.
The people are fundamentally the same. How then in the age of the African Union are African countries terming fellow Africans ‘illegal aliens’ while Westerners and Easterners can enter the continent with visas on arrival, while some don’t even require them?
Why is it cheaper and easier for an Englishman to fly from Manchester to Cape Town, while it will cost me thousands of dollars or euros (not African currencies) to make a four-hour hop from Nairobi to Jo’burg?
Why do I have to travel from Dakar to Addis, or Nairobi, or Dubai, or Abidjan or Casablanca or Paris or London or Frankfurt or Amsterdam or Qatar or even Istanbul before making the hop to Freetown which is only 50 minutes’ flying time away? Why does a businessman have to spend at least 24 hours to go from one West African city to another?
Why are we at war with ourselves? Or rather, why is our attitude towards each other more adversarial than complimentary? We are a continent of brothers and sisters, as Jon J. Muth said: “It is easy to believe we are each waves and forget we are also the ocean.” NA