My African odyssey

Ernest Moloi - BG reporter
Tuesday, 12 July 2016
My African odyssey

Travelling outside one’s country almost always evokes a sense of trepidation and anxiety. I don’t know about you, but for me, beginning with the preps all the way to travel logistics, it’s a guaranteed nightmare! I fret over the mode of transport and the real possibilities of accidents or God-forbid, terror attacks!

As I grow older and wiser however, I think I’m beginning to appreciate the imperative for light travel and its profits on the return leg! Customs procedures can be such a drag, come to think of it, if you exceed the permissible luggage weight! Anyways, since my Nissan bakkie is parked somewhere in Mmopane for a never-ending service, getting to Sir Seretse Khama International Airport (SSKA) means catching a De Luxe cab, and Modise, a fine chap from Mabalane in Kgatleng District comes to my rescue. I am bound for an African odyssey.And once at SSKA, I suddenly remember that this airport was recently revamped and expanded to cater for international travellers. I marvel at the tiny departures/arrivals electronic board, which forces one to squint eyes or get pretty close to see which flight is coming or going.

I have been using this airport since the early 1990’s and truth be told I don’t really know what improvements have been made. If anything, I think we’ve regressed because back then we had the British Airways Boeing 707 landing here frequently and there was never any fuss about the runway. Then we had Air Botswana ply the regional routes and we were proud to fly the national airline to various destinations across the region, even if on transit, because it represented our identity.I am afraid this time around there was no sense of patriotism, as I boarded South African Airways Express flight 1766 to OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg en route to Nairobi, Kenya courtesy of the kind sponsorship of the United Nations Regional Bureau for Africa to attend the Non State Actors Sensitisation Meeting organised by the Civic Commission for Africa (CCCfA) to prepare for the 6th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI).

In forty-five minutes I had practically and literally been tossed from a relatively slow airport with little traffic and instantly thrust onto an airport teeming with people, aircraft movements, shuttle buses, taxis, the Metro buses, shops and restaurants and even banking facilities. The airport has terminals for arrivals and departures clearly marked and designated. OR (Oliver Reginald) Tambo- the former Jan Smuts Airport indeed deserves the tag of an international airport. I think hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2010 helped South Africa a great deal to improve its infrastructure - roads,  aviation, banks, stadia and hotels – and now they are reaping the dividends in steady inflow of foreign direct investment.As I sit at one of the restaurants in the airport for lunch, waiting for my connecting flight, yet another SAA, to Nairobi, the thought crosses my mind, why is Botswana not investing in capital intensive infrastructure; why are our roads this  small; our airport the size of a matchbox? Why do we have so much money stacked in foreign reserves but no infrastructure to attract domestic and foreign investors?

The waiters at OR Tambo are men and women, barely in their 20’s but they serve you to your heart’s contention. In her eagerness and youthful exuberance, the waiter gives me a burnt pizza for my order. I politely return it and demand a good one. As I wait I rummage through the day’s papers. There’s another woman who claims to be the love child of Nelson Mandela complaining how Graca Machel denied her the right to see her father. Now she’ll not rest until she has been to Madiba’s gravesite in Qunu. Well at 70 or so, she bears a striking resemblance of the peace icon!

We board Flight SAA 180 on this Tuesday the 7th of June at 3:25 PM, it is one of the airline’s newest Airbuses 320, and the Captain keeps reminding us throughout the flight that SAA is a proud member of Star Alliance. At 8:45PM we touch down at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. I have now lost contact with everyone back home, since Mascom doesn’t roam in these parts of Africa, silly me, I didn’t recharge my Orange account. I will have to get an Africell or any other service provider, once I am done with the immigration paperwork.

Meantime, here I am in the heartland of Swahili speaking east Africa, far away from southern Africa, the homeland of Bantu speaking peoples. Swahili was initially touted as Africa’s lingua franca by the 1963 Charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) – the predecessor of the Constitutive Act that established the African Union at Kings Park in Durban at the dawn of the Millennium. But, here I am, and I can’t utter a single word of the language!

Again my mind races into motion. Africa’s founding leaders were visionaries and pan Africanists who laid the foundation but their successors failed to translate into practice their Utopian dream of a united Africa. That’s why Swahili is not taught in our prescribed public school curriculum. Instead Africa has been divided into Francophone (French seaking) and Anglophone (English speaking) regions – which are the official languages of the African Union, while other parts are predominated by Arabs or Portuguese. The 1963 OAU Charter also made provision for the recognition of any other African language as Africa’s lingua franca, but sadly, the intention has only remained precisely that, intention!

Kenya’s airport, Kenyatta International, like SSKA is named after Kenya’s founding father. It looks like a relic from the colonial past. Relatively speaking, the building is big and I count quite a number of aircraft from various airlines. I later learn that the airport only qualified for a redo once the politicians had confirmed that US President Barrack Hussein Obama would be coming on a visit! And it took a fire that ravaged parts of the airport to drive the point home in the minds of the purse holders! My taxi driver is a bubbly man, he pours his heart out as he drives me through the maze of streets at night to Biblica guesthouse just next to Kenyatta’s official residence and state house. The president’s private home is being revamped, I see the earthmoving machines outside the yard along the road and my guide tells me the contractors are building a wall to Kenyatta’s house. The guesthouse is inviting, especially the reception the staff accords visitors. You’re made to feel very important here like they do at the Masai Market (as I were to later find out) so that they can legitimately extort your last dollar.

The next day we get down to serious work. It starts with meeting CCfA president, Madam Maungo Mooki and then heading straight to the continental secretariat of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, House No. J13 on Jamuhuri Crescent, Kabamet Rd off Ngong Road. Madam President has already organised transport and we are swiftly whisked to the offices, but along the way I observe the driving culture here in Nairobi. There are not many traffic lights like in Gaborone, the roads are not wide or sparsely open, yet the drivers meticulously navigate their way with ease with pedestrians also dashing in and out at every minute.

At PACJA offices we’re met by Robert Kithuku, the Advocacy and Networking Officer, who ushers us in and provides office logistics for the preparation of the next day’s meeting. Later on, we’re joined by Florence Syevuo, she is National Coordinator for the Global Call to Action Against Poverty- Kenya. Madam President has so much regard for her efficiency as an organiser. She talks non-stop on the phone as she coordinates her team to ensure files and the requisite conference paraphernalia are made available when the meeting starts the next day. This done, she then drives us to Biblica where we check out of the guesthouse and move to our meeting’s venue, the imposing magnificent Hotel Royal Orchid in Nairobi Westlands along Lantana Road and next to New Rehema House.

The Japanese civil society delegation led by Masaki Inaba, the executive director of Global Call to Action Against Poverty, Japan – a member of the umbrella body, Japan’s Citizens Network for TICAD, arrives accompanied by his colleague, Mosako, who’s been seconded to some of their projects in rural communities of Kenya to work with refugees and displaced persons. After exchanging pleasantries we take the lift to 11th floor to ensure the conference facility is up to standard. Madam President is happy, so far so good. I sneak out to catch a sense of street life. I see Westlands’ opulence coexisting with deprivation and hunger written on the faces of beggars that bestride the streets and alleyways, appealing to passers-by for a morsel to eat or some Shillings.

The roadsides are unkempt and so I make a mental note. The skyscrapers or rather, high-rise buildings dot every corner, it’s a gigantic city this Nairobi with undulating landscapes and interweaving rivers criss-crossing the concrete jungle to create a sight blissful to behold unlike our (Gaborone) singular central business district and the far and wide mega malls located at various points of the flat city. As dusk settles I have already made a few friends and deduced from our converastions, the bane of the country’s development – it is the dreaded ethnicity which has been and continues to be the downfall of many an African state.

Walking back to my hotel room that boasts all the accessories for one’s comfort – flat TV, WiFi, phone, fridge laden with drinks and foodstuffs (dare not touch unless you have the money to pay), I take a long shower and then snuggle into bed – conscious that the morning sun will herald the dawn of another day. And indeed Thursday June 9, 2016 marks the official opening of the NSA sensitisation meeting. The occasion is punctuated by official speeches from government of Kenya, who is the host of the first-ever TICAD summit to be held in Africa, slated for August 27- 28th 2016, as well as speeches from all the co-organisers of the TICAD process, these being World Bank, UNDP and African Union Commission. 

The AU-CIDO, IPPF and ECOSOC are also present at the meeting and make timely and helpful interventions to locate the debate into context and shape the outcome we desire in a language that will be acceptable to the African Ministers’ meeting, which shall follow in Banjul, The Gambia in west Africa on June 16 and 17th. It is an engaging programme and thankfully Kenya’s civil society organisations have responded overwhelmingly. Their contributions during questions and answers sessions and group discussions are rich and calculated to win over Japan’s or TICAD VI’s patronage. They show this by their grasp of the TICAD VI pillars, to wit, industrialisation; health, water & sanitation and social security.

June 10th is the final day for the NSA meeting. We go into groups built around the TICAD VI pillars to discuss appropriate roles that civil society can play. At the end the ideas are distilled into what becomes known as the Civil Society Organisations Declaration on the 6th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) – ‘People’s Voices to the 2016 TICAD VI’. We load the programme to run for half day so that we can all partake of Hotel Royal Orchid’s sumptuous lunch buffet for the last time and then go our separate ways, perchance to meet another time, God willing.

In the afternoon we find time to go to the CBD, visit the banks for the usual suspect transactions and then pop into Royal Air Maroc offices to sort out our flights to Casablanca, Morocco, which we’ve just learnt have been postponed to the next day without any prior warning or communication. Once our new tickets are secured we return to the hotel where I spend the night watching the live coverage of the world’s boxing legend Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay). A little smirk plays on my lips as I observe how all the interviewees deliberately skirt mention that Cassius was recruited into the Black Muslims  by Malcolm X, later to be known as Al Hajj Malik-El- Shabaaz after making the epic pilgrimage to Mecca! Saturday 10th June we visit Nairobi CBD, go to Masai market to buy some mementos, beautiful stuff I must confess but prohibitively expensive.

I learn that whenever they see that you’re a foreigner they balloon the asking price. At 10:05 PM we board the Royal Air Maroc flight, a Boeing 767 – 300 to Casablanca, Morocco where we spend a night in the airport lounge and next morning after much bargaining I manage to convince airport authorities that we don’t deserve the shabby treatment meted us, especially since we are travelling with CCfA president. We are then relocated to airport hotel, Atlas hotel, where we sleep, rest and grab lunch coupons for a bite to eat. We spend the rest of the Sunday sauntering in the airport because we have no exit passes to go into town. We eat dinner, for which I pay a whopping 74 Euros for the four of us- Maungo, Florence, Robert and I

At 23:50 we board yet another RAM flight to Banjul, The Gambia. But then we make a stopover at 0320HRS on Monday for some 20 minutes in Guinea Bissau. And finally we arrive at just after 0400HRS at Banjul International Airport in the Islamic Republic of The Gambia, the smiling coast of west Africa, which shudders under the tight grip of President Yahya Jammeh. We check in at Baobab Holiday Resort on the same day and we then next engage the country’s civil society organisations to prepare for the Ministerial Meeting.
On Wednesday June 15th we check out of Baobab Holiday Resort to get closer to the venue of the ministerial meeting at Kairaba Beach Hotel on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

We all – the African civil society delegation and their Japanese counterparts- book into the adjacent Senegambia Beach Hotel, where we will spend the next three days in the idyllic beach gardens of tropical Africa, mixing work and leisure under the hospitality of the friendly Gambians, most of whom seem to enjoy their Ramadan Eid Mubarak holidays!
On the night of Friday 17th June we leave for the airport for our return leg, which will once again take me another three days to travel from west Africa via north Africa (Morocco) and on to Qatar, Dubai in the Middle East and then to east Africa (Nairobi) and finally back to Johannesburg and home, sweet home, Gaborone in southern Africa. All throughout this odyssey I am perturbed that Africa still remains so backwards in terms of infrastructure developments. The Qatar airport has definitely stunned me. I can’t help but doff my hat to the Arabs for their wise use of the revenues derived from their oil resources.

If only we too could spend our diamond moneys in building long-lasting infrastructure. It’s Monday 20th June as we touch down at SSKA on this small SAA Express jet, which had to replace our earlier flight in O.R Tambo, that was abruptly cancelled on the excuse of having suffered a ‘technical glitch’. I would later learn that this is aviation speak suggesting the number of passengers doesn’t justify the trip and so it’s postponed or ‘cancelled.’ Again I wait for Modise’s cab at SSKA to get me to Ext. 19, where I will contend with dark streets in these freezing nights.

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