I’ve very much enjoyed reading Africa in Transition, published in 2011 by George Coulter. Coulter was a fish biologist who worked in various African countries from the 1950s to the 1990s. That might not sound particularly interesting, but this is not a detailed exposition about fishing, instead it’s a relatively easy to read analysis of the process of aid development, alongside a personal travel story plus some more general African history – and it makes for a fascinating book. Also, the chap can write.
The day had started fine, but later cumulus began building and towered up until the entire sky was heavily clouded and rain was imminent. We decided to pull in for the night, and went through the motions of stowing gear and starting to prepare food. But I wanted to watch awhile. There was very little sign of life, even frogs seemed hesitant to begin their serinade – perhaps sudden darkening had taken them by surprise. Soon the first heavy drops turned into a chill deluge driven by fierce wind. One would have been soaked outside our boat roof, instantly. Soon the storm eased and moved on, but another was approaching. The Swamps took on a look of extreme desolation and menace. The reeds looked disordered and crushed by the downpour, while a few erect stands of papyrus were threshing in gusts of wind.
You can easily imagine the setting from that description.
The fish interest details would have been covered in Coulter’s PhD Thesis, “Hydrobiological processes and the deep-water fish community in Lake Tanganyika”, 1966 leaving Africa in Transition to be a much easier to read and enjoyable book.
Coulter doesn’t so much juggle with the three or so concepts mentioned above (development, travel, history) as throw them up in the air in the first two parts of the book, and then in Chapter 13, the third part, they bounce back together as he looks at change in human circumstances and welfare in Africa during the post-independence era, and in particular the social and economic evolution of ‘traditional’ communities to ‘modern’ lifestyles (it is he who puts those two words in quotations). I find this very intersting, as the same theme, to some extent, appears in variouus places in my blog, even including my posts on the Highland and Lowland Clearances.
In 1984, Lindsey and I once waited at Khondowe two days for a bus (there was hardly any petrol in the country that month, and almost all transport, apart from party cars, had ceased). In the local cafe/bar we got talking to a very old, blind man who had been taught by Dr Robert Laws, in the early years of the century. I was most taken with the fact that we were sort of reaching back into history. Coulter does much better than this. He is able to write, “In 1960 I met a man who remembered David Livingstone.” Wow!
Lindsey and I once drove our motorbike from Zomba to Dedza, in 1984. We noticed as we got closer to Dedza the fact that on one side of the road, which marked the border with Mozambique, there was nothing at all except bush. On the other side were huddles of refugees from the Renamo/Frelimo conflict, selling their vegetables which presumably had been carried over the border from hidden gardens. When Coulter was in the same area ten years later in 1994, he describes a very similar situation (page 208).
Coulter worked for a while in Ghana, where he found that the socialist drive under Nkrumah to industrialise and raise standards of living ironically had the effect of encouraging petty capitalism and permitting corruption. He watched as the traditional Fante fishing communities, based on lineage and kinship, with gender duality and a spirit of welfare for local communities, evolved through the introduction of ‘modern’ fishing systems emphasising technology, the involvement of capital and individualisation.
He cannot resist a few descriptions of those white people he has come across or lived amongst, not farmers or those making a living from the land, but rather ex-officials, scientists and a few other types, who ‘stayed on’ after independence and became, to some extent, stranded.
Coulter lived through the massacre of Hutus by Tutsis in Burundi, in 1972. This episode received very little coverage in the UK media at the time. It is not to be confused with the massacre of Tutsi people by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, which was, belatedly, covered in the press. Coulter did not know whether to resign from his research post in protest, or continue with his work. He stayed, but when he tried to continue his work with the Hutu fishermen he found that many of them had disappeared.
Africa in Transition is absolutely fascinating. I will leave it for son Jamie to read, as he knows from first hand a bit about the economics of development in Africa, and he may continue to be involved in this sort of work in the future.