Who cares about Africans when white people can go see hippos?

Last night I was googling some information on Malawi’s planned inland river port at Nsanje. This scheme probably deserves several posts of its own: at first blush it appears to be an incredible mix of personal hubris, electioneering, grand corruption, China style mega-projects, and a Roosevelt-esque (the first one) kind of expansive, visionary leadership on the part of the Malawian government and President Mutharika.

At this point I was basically interested in the practicalities, however. The idea is apparently to build a dock there (which has been opened, although not entirely successfully) and then dredge the Shire river down to where it joins the Zambezi. The Zambezi already apparently carries some shipping traffic. This was a surprise to me, since I’ve been told repeatedly that <a href="http://bornagainredneck.blogspot.com/2005/07/tragedy-of-africa-no-navigable-rivers.html"sub-Saharan Africa has no navigable rivers. When looking for information on current shipping activities on the river, I came across this post that literally caused me to grit my teeth:

“The thought that the Zambezi River may be converted into a commercial waterway chills my soul! I fell in love with this mighty river on my very first trip to Africa in 1984 when I canoed down her waters for 7 days. It was an unforgettable experience and I have returned to paddle down the river each time I come back to Africa to relive how Livingstone might have viewed the river on his exploration of Africa. I have been back 5 times and although the Zambezi still weaves it’s magic, she has already changed enormously since 1984. On the Zambian side, powerboats ply the waters and lodge after lodge spoils the darkness and still of the night with its lights and generators.”

Exactly! Curse those pretentious Africans, daring to use electrical lighting! I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. Beyond hitting on the standard safarigoer tropes of falling in love with Africa and opposing any changes there, I was taken aback by the utter disregard for the needs of the people living near the river. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect the environment, or even valuing that over economic growth at some margin. But Skliros doesn’t spend a single word talking about the needs of a country (Zimbabwe) that at the time was just coming out of a deep economic crisis – and a *real* crisis, where income per person dropped by nearly half to barely a dollar a day, not a white people crisis where growth merely stagnates and we remain spectacularly rich.

If you want to protect wildlife, fine. I’ll even concede Skliros’s point about the economic value of tourism. However, it is unacceptable to rail against a project like this without proposing some viable alternative, and it’s downright unconscionable to not even mention the need for one.

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About Jason Kerwin

http://nonparibus.wordpress.com/author
This entry was posted in economic development, environmentalism, tradeoffs. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Who cares about Africans when white people can go see hippos?

  1. Pingback: Positive Impact Institute » Why I love Panorak: An Essay in Two Movements

  2. Mike says:

    What about the Bonny River, Calabar River and Imo River all in Nigeria and all capable of taking something a lot bigger than a carrier further inland than Manhattan. Then there is the Niger itself which is being re-dredged to give navigation 500km inland. The Gambia River, in Gambia and many more.

    As for your rant – the guy’s article may be inconsiderate of local needs but I am sure he would feel and write the same if he went down a Western river and came back to see a simlar transformation. So why are you making it a race issue?

  3. Jason Kerwin says:

    Interesting – like I said, the truism that Africa lacks navigable rivers is widely repeated, by apparently not entirely true. It is true that it has the highest average elevation of any continent, which makes river navigability more problematic. I’m not sure whether taking a carrier farther inland than Manhattan is impressive, though: I wouldn’t consider Manhattan to be inland at all. The US has multiple navigable rivers that span nearly the entire continent, and that we can send huge ships up, although probably not carriers.

    Is this about race? I don’t think the guy who wrote that post had race in mind as an explicit motivation. But race, and perhaps more important culture and nationality, underlies the entire topic. Irrespective of motivations, attitudes like Skliros’s have the effect of benefiting wealthy whites at the expense of poor Africans. Moreover, there is an undertone of the natural balance of the relative welfare of wildlife and humans being different in Africa than in his home country (Canada). Inge’s hometown of Brandon, MB lies on the banks of the Assiniboine river. He doesn’t seem to mind that that city “spoils the darkness and still of the night with its lights”. While I don’t think that race is an explicit motive here, I have trouble believing that he’s actually valuing all people equally.

    • Mike says:

      “Is this about race?” – er -read your title, oh and by the way white people are Africans too!

      I think you are waaaay over reacting to what the guy wrote….

  4. AFRICA is a lost case. Maybe it is better to focus on other places now. What about Latin America and South Asia?

    • Jason Kerwin says:

      Ari, even if Africa really were “lost”, what kind of person would honestly conclude that the right attitude is to give up on the people who live there?

      But I don’t buy that pessimistic attitude anyway. Africa has been leading the world in growth in recent years, and steadily improving in terms of peace and democracy (even considering recent conflicts). Moreover, the continent may have a big opportunity to jump into global manufacturing, since labor costs in Latin American and SE Asia keep going up: http://nonparibus.wordpress.com/2013/12/26/is-this-africas-big-chance/

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