Flying through turbulent times

Hints from the air, facts on the ground

At my most cynical, I'd like to have a corner on the market for razor wire in Africa. These days, that could well be more lucrative than my small holdings in high-tech stocks.

Like electrified fences, remotely controlled driveway gates, and large, menacing dogs, the nasty-looking coils strung across the tops of thick walls surrounding private residences seem to be everywhere. Everywhere, that is, where the relatively rich people live - which is to say overwhelmingly those of non-African origin whose native tongue is German, French, Portuguese, or English.

Officially, 500 years of European colonialism may have ended here, but its evidence has not. Mostly, this takes the relatively benign form of language and place names. The many "strasses" in Namibia, for example (a former German colony), the Fortaleza de Sao Miguel (a 500-year-old Portuguese fort that sits atop a hill in Luanda, Angola), the French "villes" in Gabon. But a different kind of economic colonialism persists: multinational corporations extracting the wealth to be gained from diamonds, precious metals, timber, and oil.

On our flight from Namibia to Gabon in a single-engine Cessna, pilot Arthur Hussey and I passed over dozens of active offshore oil platforms along the coast of Angola, facilities whose owners bear the familiar names of gas stations in the United States. A little farther north, we flew over the vast equatorial rain forest of Gabon, where Japanese and Malaysian companies are battling with environmentalists over the rights to clear-cut timber.

This is not to say that all such economic development is wrong. But as many people I've met along the way point out, such development has made for a very wide - and ever-widening - gap between rich and poor.

The other night in Luanda, for example, we saw people sleeping in the streets and others rummaging through garbage piles. We saw blatant street prostitution and people who had been maimed by land mines (made in more economically developed regions) during the country's recent civil war.

At the same time, our hosts pointed out a new auto showroom amid the crumbling urban infrastructure, one that features Ferraris and Maseratis. For a few, there's a lot of money to be made here, some of it through corruption, some through the fairly recent influx of new wealth tied to oil and other resources. This has made foreigners targets of envy and (in some cases) attack. Even those here to help remedy social and human ills - nongovernmental organizations and government-sponsored aid groups - say they have to watch out.

If you're non-African and living here, I'm told, political instability brings with it related concerns for personal security. In recent months, fighting between Angola's government forces and UNITA rebels has spilled over into neighboring Namibia. An army coup in the Ivory Coast caused its president to flee. Rebels have attacked in Uganda and Burundi. And the attacks on white-owned farms in Zimbabwe - given vocal support by President Robert Mugabe - have been escalating.

"The whites are getting scared," said a taxi driver in Windhoek, Namibia, who emigrated from Germany 17 years ago. She is speaking not just of Zimbabwe but of other former African colonies as well.

Alex Colombi, an Italian-born pilot with Air Namibia, is concerned about the long-range prospects for non-Africans in Africa in the face of economic and political instability. As he sits at his dining-room table, his three-year-old son, Alessandro, on his knee, he looks across at his wife, Yolandi, and their three-month-old daughter. "I'm worried about the future for the children," he says.

Which brings us back to razor wire.

The fear of attack is not unfounded. Pat Buckley, country director of CARE in Angola, had to hire a personal body guard to accompany her everywhere for several weeks after she fired an employee accused of stealing from the organization. When they worked in Angola for CARE, Arthur and his wife were assaulted and robbed in their home. "We got stripped of all our worldly goods in quite royal fashion one night," Arthur recalls.

The "Africa on a Shoestring" travel guide warns visitors to Angola: "Never approach the police for assistance, especially the Rapid Reaction Force police (known among local expats as Ninjas because of their black clothes and helmets), as they are usually dangerous and have been known to shoot on sight when drunk."

When the police are to be avoided in times of trouble, you should be cautious about safety.

There will be different kinds of challenges as we head out of Africa - crossing the north Atlantic, for one. But as we continue our journey, we take ourselves carefully through this part of the world.

Brad Knickerbocker

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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