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Notes from the Drought

Prelude: Paris

I am here to collect my Mali visa. The Ethiopian one I already have. It came with a lecture from an embassy official on the correct attitude toward Ethiopia. It was absurd, as I must see, he said, to talk about political resettlement in that country; political resettlement is no kind of solution to anything; just by moving people from one part of the country to another you do not change their attitudes; that is not what the resettlement program is about; there is no such thing as political resettlement in Ethiopia.

As the lecture continued I looked hard and long at my shoes. It turned out, in the course of time, that there had been such a thing as political resettlement. It was we, the British, who had pioneered the art, during the Malayan emergency; we had moved thousands of Chinese as a buffer against the Communists. So who was I to talk about resettlement? In England, we decide to build a third London airport. People object. Of course they object. Then what happens? They are paid a few thousand pounds and nobody ever hears of them again. You see?

I saw. As a matter of fact, I had never mentioned the subject of resettlement. I had been asking for a visa. I was traveling, with a study group organized by Oxfam America, to look at the drought. The subject was new to me. Africa was new to me. I saw myself as an ordinary fairminded person with no particular ax to grind. How could I possibly have an ax to grind? Where would I have got it from? Still, there was beginning to be something familiar in the situation: I was beginning to remember that when you write about aid there is always an expectation of foul play.

Aid workers are if anything more sensitive and nervous than diplomats. They deal with governments of a peculiarly touchy kind. Journalists are bad news. They might be needed, yes, and they might sometimes do some good, but the rest of the time, it seems, they just fuck things up. Journalists are irresponsible. They won’t listen. They won’t learn. One stupid article can destroy years of painstaking work. These are the things you learn, as a journalist, from aid workers. Whenever I hear these things I look at my shoes. By now, I know them very well. My shoes need polishing. They are about to split at the toes. I have let them down in a thoughtless, short-sighted, and typically journalistic way.

Another lecture on Ethiopia comes from a London taxi driver, and this too has to be sat through with humility. It concerns the presumed corruption of the Ethiopian government, and it enlarges to include the corruption of all governments in the third world. The theme of the lecture can be seen coming a mile off: it is the pointlessness of charity. Look, it says, we do all this for them and what happens? Better never to have done anything at all.

Meanwhile the drought has been spreading—famously in Ethiopia and the Sudan, less famously in the countries of the Sahel, “the shore,” the sub-Sahara. Ethiopia lies at the eastern end of the drought, Mali (the former French Sudan) at the western end. My ticket is for Bamako in Mali, then Addis Ababa.

And now I am in Montmartre, waiting for my visa and reading my way into the drought. My hotel is a few hundred yards above that great band of sleaze, Pigalle. This is masturbation country, the gauntlet of clubs and booths. Many of the touts come from the part of the world I am about to visit, and in a week or so I shall learn an African description of these men. They are “people who have no respect for their parents.” They have left home and they have forgotten their customs.

The touts are insistent, swift, and hyperactive. They appear to have found that they can panic you into submission. In Abidjan Airport, on the Ivory Coast, the touts work so close to the police that it is impossible to tell who is an official and who a voyou. The man in striped shirt and tie, who whisks your passport away, makes you fill in a form, and demands ten dollars’ airport tax, is one who has no respect for his parents. The officials will arrest him if you complain, but the arrest itself appears to be one of the occupational hazards of his life. It seems the dollars will be shared out.

Above the band of sleaze, the streets of Montmartre calm down. Punters and prostitutes are off duty. At the café I have chosen, the next table is occupied by pot-smoking teen-agers with no interest in a drink. The red-haired waiter has an authority problem: he must insist that they all purchase, at least, a raspberry soda, the cheapest form of entitlement to a seat. I take a beer, and open Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor, a book about the last days of Haile Selassie.

On the eve of national holidays, it would appear, the Emperor would go before the crowds of Addis in the company of his purse bearer; “His Benevolent Majesty,” says the purse bearer,

would scoop the handfuls of coppers that he threw into the crowd of beggars and other such greedy riffraff. The rapacious mob would create such a hubbub, however, that this charitable action always had to end in a shower of police batons against the heads of the frenzied, pushy rabble. Saddened, His Highness would have to walk away from the platform. Often he was unable to empty even half the bag.

The purse bearer and the cab driver have the same view of charity: people do not deserve it. You do something and—presto!—it goes wrong. Whenever charity or aid is in question, resentment and rage are just around the corner. It seems that the giving of alms stirs in the giver the most primitive and infantile feelings of omnipotence. Omnipotence, in the terms of psychoanalysis, is the willing of the end without consideration of the means. The omnipotent child believes that his wanting some object will magically acquire that object for him. Omnipotence is the precursor of thought, and always its lurking enemy.

When a problem of world suffering gets past the threshold of our normal indifference and we decide to act, our omnipotence is engaged. We have entered our giving mode, and now we are dangerous: we expect the object of our attentions magically to comply with all our plans—the aid must be received with seemly gratitude, the world must be instantly fed and well again, wars must cease and corruption finish, our troubled consciences must be swamped in a thick sauce of congratulation. And if this does not happen, we do what the child does—we fly into a rage. The Emperor turns away from the beggars, saddened: he has delegated his rage to the baton-wielding police. The cab driver sees a news item about rotting, undelivered grain: very well then, he says, starve and see if I care.

One of the waiters in the café has a rage problem. An African beggar, muzzy with drink, halts on the pavement by the pot-smoking boys. The waiter tries to move him on, but the beggar is waiting for money. The waiter pushes. The beggar resists. Then the waiter gives the beggar a blow which sends him senseless, headlong into the road. Some people leap to their feet and help the beggar. The waiter knows he has embarrassed the whole café. He can’t help it. He goes after the beggar again. Someone says: “Leave the man alone. He’s not a dog.” The waiter takes his rage behind the bar, where he will nurse the grievance of being horribly misunderstood.

Bamako to Timbuktu

Agali arrives with the Land-Cruiser and we take our leave of the group. “See you all in Timbuktu!” For some reason, the prospect of actually getting to this famous Muslim city has taken on a symbolic value for my fellow researchers; it has made us all competitive. Whatever else happens on this trip, we all want to be sure of our fair share of the place, and my method of doing so is to drive there through the night.

All the bats of Bamako are waiting in the trees for the happy hour. Their conversation is like a speeded tape of a furious cocktail party. The bats are enormous. Three of them, stitched together, would make a serviceable but very noisy umbrella. The trees are thick and shady and the boulevards are damp. Mango stones lie in the gutter like cuttlefishes’ backbones. The French colonial architecture reminds me of the illustrations to Babar the Elephant. The evening rush hour pours out over the Niger, a great empty river, surprisingly little used at this point. The men’s bathing place and the women’s washing place are deserted. Everyone is heading for home. People come from the countryside with great sheaves of wilting greenery. The roadside stalls are stacked with fruit and vegetables.

Now, as the moon rises, I shall see Africa for the first time. The conversation subsides among the turbaned figures on the back seat, and I am aware of the rush of air against the car. The headlights show a damp red verge to the road, then lush vegetation. The drought is still an idea, an abstract problem, and my mind has slipped gently into its omnipotent mode. I watch eagerly for the faint kerosene illuminations of the villages, and the lit faces around the cooking fires, and the night scene has all the qualities of a problem of social engineering, to be solved by magic.

The problem is wood: Bamako and its swollen shantytowns, I have just been told, are consuming all the wood for miles around. More trees must be planted and less wood must be consumed. If instead of these cooking fires the population were persuaded to use small steel stoves which consume only a fraction of the wood (and cost only eight dollars), the problem might be contained. But then there would be no bonfires to sit around in the evening after work…. I wonder if Mali would put up with that.

I have been on the road for a mere couple of hours, and already, somewhere at the back of my mind, a prim, dictatorial voice has declared a curfew throughout Africa. I watch the children sitting around the fires, and already I think they should be tucked up in bed. I haven’t yet noticed that the children are doing their homework by the light of these fires. How will my internal dictator deal with that problem: will he close down the schools? How many trees would be saved if homework was abolished?

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