Article for Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday, August 11/14
Africans have Questions, Concerns about Canada
by Zack Gross
July was spent by this columnist and members of his family travelling in the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. The next few “Small Worlds” will relate back to our trip while, over the next several months, countless Manitobans will be forced to look at the 3000 photos taken by my wife.
In some ways, Kenya and Tanzania resemble one another the way the United States and Canada do. That is, they are neighbours and at peace with one another, but have different personalities. Kenyans are the more forward people, while Tanzanians are a little more laid back. Kenya is a bit more private enterprise oriented (although local people spoke of the need for a social safety net) while Tanzanians have a tradition that has been more socialist, but are trying out a more entrepreneurial approach to development.
As we tried to better understand their society, so did they, in turn, try to picture ours. In our three weeks of travel – visiting friends and colleagues in three large cities – Nairobi, Mwanza and Dar es Salaam – we had many opportunities to share questions and answers with local educators, development workers, people related to government, business people and students. These conversations took place in restaurants, at house gatherings and in vehicles while driving to visit projects funded by Manitobans.
Like a coffee shop conversation in a Manitoba town, weather and politics were often the main focus of discussion. Canada is really cold, isn’t it, we would be asked. This gave us a chance to impress our hosts with descriptions of mountain high piles of snow and -35 degree temperatures. You could see the African mind trying to get around a Canadian winter. In Nairobi in July, where we spent almost a week, it is “winter”, but that means lows in the middle teens and highs in the low twenties. Yet, people wear heavy jackets, scarves and tuques and complain about the “cold”!
In Dar es Salaam, the major port and business centre in Tanzania, located on the Indian Ocean, it is also considered to be winter, yet we faced humidity and temperatures in the high twenties and low thirties! Their summer, in January they said, is when it really gets hot! People get up in the middle of the night to take a cold shower! One of the reasons why one often sees people on the streets 24 hours a day is that their houses must be sweltering.
Another frequent question was about Quebec. It seems that more educated people are aware of separatism in Canada and it was our happy duty to assure them that the last Quebec election firmly rejected that idea and the party that represents it. In countries where tribal differences and (in Kenya) internal security are factors in politics and daily life, people can’t understand why a wealthy country would face discontent and instability.
Opportunity is another frequent topic. As we heard several times from hard-working, creative people, they have good ideas and lots of energy, but they have no capital and few prospects. Half the population in many countries is unemployed and most people are “under-employed”, that is they don’t have full-time work. They may find work through a family member or a home-grown contact but it may have no prospect of advancement.
One sees hordes of people selling small items along roads or in markets. I made the comment at one point that in Canada this would not be allowed as people don’t have vendor licences and are dodging unsafely through traffic. The response I got was, if that happened here there would be a revolt as then these people would truly feel that they have no hope.
While jobs aren’t always easy to find in Canada, there is a light at the end of the tunnel here which is not apparent there. However, when a boom happens – and there is one in East Africa now with the discovery of minerals (oil, gold, diamonds) – one does see commercial investment. Mwanza, a backwater town when I last visited 14 years ago, now boasts new roads, hotels, even a Tim Horton’s- style bakery and is growing quickly as people rush in for jobs coming available. In the larger cities, besides the older well-established families who have some wealth and power, you see a small, new generation of modern young Africans looking to do well in international business, in new technologies and ultimately in politics.
Finally, people are grateful for what Canadians do in supporting development projects. But they ask, Aren’t we doing less than we used to? Some of the organizations that have worked in African communities in the past have left for lack of funding. Even for me, the question was raised What happened to Worldly Goods, the Marquis Project store? This came from women wanting to sell baskets, as they had done in the past, in Brandon. I explained that situations change and then I dutifully bought and packed as many baskets as I could into my luggage. They are beautiful and I will be able to sell them, no doubt.
Rick Mercer has his tongue-in-cheek Talking to Americans routine that emphasizes those who are ill-informed, gullible and arrogant. In our case, Africans are curious, respectful and a bit envious of Canadians who have a greater sense of security and well-being than they do. Except for the weather…!
Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC) and is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.