The warm Mediterranean waters slapped my feet as the cool sea breeze soothed my weary soul.

Just being there on the humid shores of the Mediterranean, had cost me almost $2000, which was the sum total of my life’s savings, sale of a plot inherited from my mother and a debt of $500 obtained from a loan shark.

Have I bought survival or death? This question kept tugging at my heart like a restless child. I searched the vast waters momentarily intrigued by the dancing waves that would carry me all the way to Europe.

Have I bought survival or death? This question surfaced again. But I pushed it aside, in the same manner that a mother quiets a nagging child. Next to me was a woman old enough to be my mother, or even my grandmother. It was hard to tell the age represented in her excited eyes and unsmiling face that was partially covered by a blue veil.

It seemed to me that there were almost as many women as men on that hot sea shore. People appeared to be both excited and hopeless, which was an exact replica of my own emotions. I knew that hundreds of other migrants had died in this unforgiving waters of the Mediterranean. But when my best friend back in Abidjan pointed out this to me numerous times, I had always retorted that, ‘planes crash from the sky all the time but people keep boarding them.’

I smiled as my thoughts took me back to Abidjan where my journey had started. Despite its daily struggles, my country was my home and as Bwak the Bantu poet says, ‘home is like saliva, it remains in your mouth even when you spit it out.’

For weeks, the normal daily routine of my life had belied the immense excitement within.  

As I hang my washing on two thick wires, I felt a draught blowing into my armpits through the exact spot where my blouse was torn. I didn’t want to repair my clothes because soon, I would begin a journey with my twelve years old daughter. Our final destination: Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island. It was a journey without a visa but full of hope.

Europe. That Europe, where my cousin had prospered, was my last chance, my last dice. The die was cast as I had already paid the men who would shepherd our long journey to Libya and beyond.

I gazed above the clothes that I was hanging and saw my daughter Keita. She didn’t know her father and I would never tell her. He was an uncle who had raped me barely a year after the death of my mother. I had also never known my father.

Like me, this beast of an uncle lived in commune d’Attécoubé. Some called it a shanty but I called it home.

Despite the trauma of my childhood and teenage years, I managed to complete high school and attain a diploma in accounting.

To my shock, my diploma became a source of frustration because it kept reminding me that there were no jobs even for diploma holders like myself. In a plastic folder were 183 copies of job applications that I had submitted.

I felt as useless as the polythene papers that littered our ghetto.

Keita was hungry although she had just eaten a beignet a few minutes earlier. So I gave her money and she dashed to the bakery at the corner for another one.

That evening, we feasted on foufou and gombo sauce. I loved this meal because it was the favourite meal of my late mother whose roots were in Bouaké, the second biggest city of the country.  

Inhabitants of Bouaké are known as Baoulé. They are renowned in cotton farming, the region’s main cash crop.

Another wave threw itself into Libya’s hot sand but I didn’t notice it since my thoughts were still in my home country. Would I ever see the splendor of Lake Kossou again? I wondered. This lake was near my rural home and it always calmed my nerves every time I visited it.

‘We are going to live in Europe,’ I had told Keita one morning as she put on her school uniform.

‘France?!’ Her eyes lit up.

‘Yes,’ I nodded happily. The previous day, I had finally accumulated all the money that was needed for us to join the trip.

Apart from my best friend Ninette, no one else knew about the trip as I didn’t want to become a laughing stock in case it backfired.  

I watched happily as the small frame of my daughter disappeared though our narrow doorway as she ran to school. Although she was 12, people thought she was 7 or 8. I wanted her to grow up in Europe, far away from the blind life of my country. Blind because one could never see what tomorrow had in store. One never knew if a good education would lead to a good job. Even if you were lucky enough to get a job, the salary was often enough only for your transport, lunch and rent. This meant that you lived for today with no idea of how you would survive if you lost your job or if you fell critically sick. No. I didn’t want my daughter to go through this. I wanted her to live, not just barely survive.

Sometimes, the names of our current and former presidents would trickle into my mind.

Henri Konan Bédié, Laurent Gbagbo, and  Alassane Ouattara. Did they care for Keita and I? Just as I wanted the very best for my daughter, did they want the very best for all the children of Côte d'Ivoire? Famous as these names were, the only name that mattered to me was Keita. My beloved daughter.

I just wanted my baby to grow up, study, get a job, get married, get children and be happy. Was that too much too much to ask? It seemed to me that unless she studied well and got a good job; marriage, children and happiness would be beyond her reach.

There was commotion on the crowded beach. Someone shouted something in Arabic. Someone else shouted something in English then finally someone shouted out instructions in French. The boat would arrive soon and we were asked to board it in an orderly way. There would be space for everyone. Remember to pray.

When I had finally left Abidjan the previous week, I had shed tears of joy. I clothed my daughter in new black jeans, new white sneakers, a new green blouse and a new green woolen sweater. After all, a new and better life awaited her in Europe. We joined hands and prayed for the one millionth time.

Then we walked out of our narrow doorway, heavy bags on our shoulders and bubbling hope in our hearts.

I didn’t look behind at the roads of the shanty town of Attécoubé, as if doing so would cause me to change my mind. I was finally walking away from a life of poverty and never ending uncertainties.

Keita and I left Côte d’Ivoire through the small town of Zegoua at the border with Mali. From Mali, we travelled on to Senegal and then Libya.

I will soon be on that boat on my way to Europe. I thought happily as my eyes made contact with the equally joyous eyes look of a Somali woman. Seated at her feet, almost clinging to her, were two kids younger than Keita. Our religions, cultures and countries were different but we were united in our hope for a better tomorrow.

Our lives were in the hands of those men who had taken our money and would now hold our lives in their boat. .

It was time to board the boat.

The Somali woman and I looked at each other once again and our lips parted into half smiles.

In those smiles, was hope for ourselves and our children. My mama used to say that when you lose hope, you stop living.

NOTE:

·         3,149: the number migrants lost lives in 2014 as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean.

·         22,000: the number of people who have perished since 2000.

·         150,000: the number of people who were saved in 2014.

 

·         36,000: the number of migrants who reached European coasts since January 2015.

Although you will be expecting it, the spray will catch you by surprise. It will drench your happy face and leave a lasting mark in your heart. You will have seen the spray from miles away as it often rises to heights of up to four hundred metres.

The spray is created when torrents of Zambezi waters plummet for more than one hundred metres into the Zambezi gorge.

When you finally make it to one of Victoria Falls nineteen viewing points, you will come face to face with the spray and the majestic waterfalls themselves. 

That moment when your eyes first behold something that you have waited for your whole life to see can drench you in mixed feelings. This is how I felt when I finally stood at one of the fifteen viewing points on the Zimbabwean side. On the one hand I was utterly speechless. In total awe and instantly comprehending why the gushing waterfalls were a sacred site for riverine communities like the Leya.

I understood why David Livingstone, the nineteenth century explorer described the waterfalls in glowing terms, ‘scenes so lovely they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight… the snow-white sheet like myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam.’

The grandeur of Victoria Falls inspires awe and I was duly awestruck. But on the other hand, this awesome moment was punctured by a lingering feeling of, ‘now what?’

Now that the Victoria Falls were right there before my eyes, the sheer joy of anticipation had dissipated with the spray. What next?

An answer slowly came into my mind when I walked through the moist pathways of the rainforest that borders the waterfalls. By the time I was gazing at the mighty falls from below, I was drenched. It felt like standing in rain and just feeling the water fill every pore in my body.

What next? It occurred to me that through the spray, I was interacting directly with Zambezi’s water. This reminded me that Victoria Falls was in actual fact the waters of Zambezi both tumbling down and shooting upwards in a spectacular dance of Mother Nature.  It was time to know the heartbeat of these waterfalls and comprehend what made them tick.

Behind the wonder of this seemingly divine spectacle are wandering waters that underpin ecosystems without which the waterfalls would not be there.

Before the day that is Victoria Falls breaks out and stuns the world, there is a night without which this dazzling morning would not be possible.

When Zambezi River arrives at Victoria Falls, it is just over two kilometres wide meaning that a leisurely walk across it would take you half an hour. When it is flowing in full force during the rainy season, the falls become a two-kilometre wide, 100-metre plunge into Zambezi gorge.

Before the mist-forming waters take the deep plunge, they are engrossed in occasional rapids and a gentle flow that has its origins in Zambia’s Kalene Hills close to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. As such, the hills precede the falls. The Zambezi waters meander through hills, valleys and plains that contribute uniquely towards the overall wellbeing of the river. 

Along the way, the river provides shelter for fish, crocodiles, hippos plus a host of diverse flora and fauna. Diverse fish species like tiger fish, catfish and cichlids reside in the river as do the bigger boys and girls – crocodiles and hippos.

Crocodiles flap their bulky tails in the raging waters as their powerful jaws delve into the rotting flesh of wildebeests that lost the battle against the Zambezi as they tried to cross it.

Along the way, the raging waters create two smaller, lesser known waterfalls – Chavuma Falls and Ngonye Falls. These falls are more of warthogs compared to the elephant that is Victoria Falls but they are waterfalls nonetheless, harbingers of Victoria Falls, in essence preparing the way like John theBaptist.

Ngonye falls are like gates that mark the river’s departure from Kalahari sand floodplain and entry into the basalt dyke geological formation that makes the Victoria Falls possible. Indeed, the riverbed that ferries Zambezi’s waters was carved out over ages in a unique fashion that facilitates Victoria Falls.

Ngonye falls is only one fifth of Victoria Falls but it is part of a natural architecture that carves out Victoria Falls superhighway.  

Etched firmly on this superhighway in the wider upper Zambezi, are dambos, as the small headwater wetlands are known. Of particular significance is the marshy wetland in north-West Zambia that births the river. As noted in a comprehensive report on Zambezi River’s Ecosystems, ‘although the impact of individual small wetlands on flow may be negligible, because there are so many of them, their cumulative impact may be significant.’[1]

Cumulative impact is the name of the game in the bigger picture of upper Zambezi. The wetlands and floodplains like Barotse together with other ecosystems all join forces to ensure that River Zambezi keeps flowing on, delivering the water that ends up cascading as Victoria Waterfalls.

The upper Zambezi section of the river is uninterrupted by large dams that can be found in subsequent sections of the river. In this regard, the waters of the upper section are blessed with a natural, unhindered flow.

This flow also surges in underground streams that replenish the river during dry season between April and October. Some of Victoria Falls tumbling waters stem directly from those unseen underground streams of upper Zambezi. Many of these streams break into the surface through dambos that subsequently channel more water into the waiting arms of River Zambezi. Indeed, it is a replenishing cycle of nature that feeds into Victoria Falls on a constant basis with a tireless dazzle.

In the same vein, by the time Zambezi creates Victoria Falls, it has already benefited from smaller rivers that power into it with cheerful roars. In Angola, Luena and Chifumage rivers join Zambezi and become part of the great river. In Zambia, Kabompo River also joins the Zambezi with a cheerful flow. This river has its origins on the border of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lungwebungu River, which is the largest tributary of Upper Zambezi, similarly pours into Zambezi in Zambia although it commences its journey in Angola.

Against this backdrop, the gushing waters of Victoria Falls are a mosaic of four large tributaries and several smaller streams. Consequently, when that spray from the waterfalls moistens ones face, it contains water drops from all these great rivers and streams that deposit their waters into upper Zambezi.  

Behind the wonder that is Victoria Falls are dazzling flora and fauna without which the tapestry of Upper Zambezi would be incomplete. Amongst them are stunning birds like the lilian’s lovebirds aka nyasa lovebirds, small African parrots whose green yellow plumage matches perfectly with their red-lipstick lips; marabou storks whose massive beaks remind one of flying rakes; the mostly pink southern carmine bee eaters that can be seen building their nests along the banks Zambezi River and the red billed quelea whose wise visage add an air of beautiful maturity to the Zambezi tapestry.

Every once in a while, these birds can be seen flying through or above the Victoria Falls spray. Although their cheery chirps are lost in the hiss and thunder of the waterfalls, their bright colors and flapping wings add beautiful music to the sight of the falls.

Gazing down from their birds’ eye view, the birds can appreciate that Victoria Falls is a wondrous culmination of equally wondrous ecosystems in the upper Zambezi.

 



[1] McCartney, M.; Cai, X.; Smakhtin, V. 2013. Evaluating the flow regulating functions of natural ecosystems in the Zambezi River Basin. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

From the horizon, I see the sun taking time to rise; it is an orangey subdued lighting offering its warmth to the waters of Lake Victoria while chasing away the morning mist.

I am watching the sun from the shore of Kingfisher Safari Resort. Also in my view are men that are busy cleaning and pushing their wooden boats into the calm waters. Women are scooping water into their faded buckets and ferrying it home in fast, rhythmic steps.  Some are chatting loudly as they wash clothes. Every few minutes a boat docks at the shore after a night of fishing.   

Godfrey Kasadha is one of these fishermen. His friends have teasingly nicknamed him “wamukisa”- the lucky man.  This morning, he is nonchalantly cleaning a boat. I approach him with a hesitant look and an idiotic smile. I only have 10,000 Ugandan shillings in the back pocket of my red pants, but I omit to say it.  I want a ride, a ride to the source. I want to see the origin of that magic Nile, that Nile that existed from the time of the ancient testament in the Holy Bible, that Nile I have studied in geography. The Nile that makes Africa proud as the longest River in the world.

Kasadha is feeling guilty because the sun woke up before him. As he gives me a ride, he is not very optimistic that will get a big catch but is spotting a big smile nonetheless. B

A small voice full of fear is reminding me that I am in the middle of a 68,000km2 body of water with a stranger that I just met sixteen minutes ago. Yet, my enthusiasm to realize my dream of discovering the source of the Nile slowly silences that voice.

Kasadha’s red boat is joined together by pieces of metal that are skillfully nailed in the wood. Inside there is a small green jerry can that contains his fishing secret – three live moon fishes that serve as baits to the Nile perches that he patiently chases in the warm water.

He relates to me that years of fishing experience have taught him to gratefully accept whatever the lake gives him. He ruthlessly drives holes into the heads of his baits using different hooks and ties them to a kamba, fishing line, which he releases into the lake. He entrusts me with one kambas that I seriously but clumsily hold in the deep calm water.

Lake Victoria’s maximum depth can attain 83 meters.  Today, Kasadha uses one of the 9 types of hooks that fishers utilize in his neighborhood. He chooses fish-hook number 7 because it has a sharp tongue and the Nile perch can never escape from it.

Victoria is the largest tropical lake in the world. It spreads over an area that is more than twice the size of Rwanda. As he paddles in its expansive waters, he carefully watches the movements of the live moon fishes. Any slight movement will communicate to his trained eye whether a perch has swallowed the bait.

It’s like a seduction game and the perch is like a man who blindly follows and falls under a woman’s charm. But unfortunately for the perch, the spell is broken when it takes the bait.

Kasadha doesn’t have a secondary, leave along a bachelor’s degree. But he has a masters in practical fishing. He has definitely mastered his profession and has a firm grasp of the region’s history.

Back in 1906, Jinja was just a small fishing village. It grew gradually to become the second largest city in Uganda.  The name Jinja is said to have been coined by local baganda workers who were employed on the other side of the Nile River; the Basoga side, to break the gigantic stones and clear the land. Jinja means stone and each morning, they would call out to each other, ‘let’s go to that Jinja, to that stone.’ The name stuck and Jinja it is until today.

I am all ears as Kasadha shares the story of Jinja, he changes the paddle from left to right and heads for the “real source” of the Nile.

Along the way, enyange (egrets) and embata (black swans) are the companions of the fishermen.  The panorama in front includes two tiny islands and some rocks. One of these islands is home for birds that have decorated the ground with their whitish droppings. The second island hosts small handcraft businesses sheltered in huts.

At the source, water comes from underground and spins before flowing to Lake Victoria.

There, I allow my spirit to bend over the incomparable beauty of that moment, I am wordlessly grateful of being alive and present at the source of the Nile River. I sample the stillness of the spinning water.

The fishing continues. Kasadha and I have not yet caught anything, he looks with envy at others who came earlier than him and already have piles of perches in their boats.

I imitate him as he checks his kamba often but both moon fishes are still floating in the water. As we slowly round the source, we take time to admire the comeliness of Jinja. He watches a malakayiti; a small multicolored bird with an orange beak. The tiny bird hides constantly in the bushes and it is only by chance that we see it. On another branch, a woodland bird is carelessly hanging.

As we move forward and leave behind the spinning water, Kasadha reflects on how fishing has changed his economy. He reminisces how he lost his father when he was very young. He was obliged to help his mother by carrying food products to the market. He could only earn around 4,000 Ugandan shillings ($1.4). Currently, when he is lucky, he can daily make 200,000 shillings ($71) from fishing and other small jobs.

 “okuvuba kwacyusa oburamu bwangge”- Fishing has changed my life.

It is worth noting that 20% of Uganda is water. In 2010, the country earned $ 83.3 million from fishing industry with the highest peak ever of $ 143,168 million in 2005.

The money that Kasadha gets from his job is spent to educate his son and support his extended family.   

Unlike him, hundreds of other fishermen spoil their earnings wit sex workers. While the national HIV+ incidence is only 7%, it reaches around 40% for fishermen.  Their hazardous job jeopardizes them to risk their lives in the cloudy waters of the Lake Victoria.

They believe in imminent attacks by the crocodiles or drowning accidents. Some have fished the corpses of their friends and are afraid that one day, it would be themselves that other fishermen will bring back.

This lake is the most important inland fishery production in Africa and this sector employs between 1 million and 1.5 million nationals in Uganda.

As this represents a considerable number of individuals who are exposed, the careless sexual behavior of fishermen constitutes an alarming menace to this industry. In addition, access to government health services is still a challenge for the Jinja municipality.

Another obstacle in Jinja is the regulation of fishery activities and the protection of Lake Victoria’s biodiversity. The only restriction imposed to fishermen is the use of the fishing nets.  It’s forbidden for fishers who are not part of a fishing company to use nets; they can only fish with hooks and no moral law prevents the women to pollute the lake when they are cleaning their clothes.

Kasadha observes another group of women with an ironic smile. My eyes follow his regard.

“You see, women’s role is to wash clothes and fetch water. They wait for their husbands’ catches. They can’t fish because once they catch a fish they scream and give jumps. For them, fishing is a joke”.

His ironic smile has turned into a proud and loud laughter that shakes his strong shoulders. I want to confront him but I remember that I’m just here to admire the nature. I calm down my feminist spirit.

For the umpteenth time, Kasadha checks the kamba and concludes that today is not our lucky day, that he is not the wamukisa Kasadha. He takes the moon fish, removes the sharp hook, leaving stains of blood on his grey face and puts it back in the wet green jerry can. He will keep the bait alive for the next perch fishing.

Even if we did not catch anything, he always loves to share his boat with tourists and make them discover the wonders of Jinja without a fee.

-          Now, you are my friend from another country, no money can pay that! He wisely explains.

It’s around 9:00 and the sun is hotly burning our faces. Far in the lake, four boats are still navigating in the lake waters while their occupants are more discussing than fishing.

Once, it took a week for Kasadha to catch fish. Another day with a friend; he caught a 60kg perch measuring 2 meters. The uncertainties, despairs and surprises are part of the fishing stories of Jinja.

 

The next morning, I will be far away back to my normal life while Kasadha will take his own boat and use worms to fish tilapia. The favorite tilapia….

Standing short and expansive with its thorny branches is the gum acacia tree, also known as gum arabic. The tree is a short distance away from the banks of Senegal River in the southern part of Mauritania. This tree is part of Mauritania’s 0.2 percent forest cover, the lowest in Africa.

Indeed, Mauritania is a lonely place for forests. There are ten times as many red Indians in the US than trees in Mauritania. To put it differently, the percentage of black US presidents is more than the percentage of Mauritania’s forest cover. Now, that’s a pretty lonely place to be, because President Barack Obama is the only black US president ever.

Mauritania’s forests don’t earn it much even though deforestation costs the country $84 million every year in lost earnings.

Back in 1998, the desert country’s forest imports were valued at $733,000, which was one third of what the country spent to import forest products worth $2,442,000. The situation is even worse now because the forest cover is less than it was back then. In 1930, Mauritania came tried to come to the rescue of lonely trees by introducing prosopis juliflora also known as mequite. These efforts were stepped up more than half a century later when 22,951 hectares of the tree were established between 1990 and 1997. Unfortunately, these efforts were not built expanded. Instead, fires, overgrazing, drought and agricultural expansion continued clearing trees.

As the lonely trees continue to fall by the wayside, bringing in bringing in less and less revenue, fish and iron are earning the country handsome amounts.

Fisheries and iron ore extraction are the country’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi – they are the top earners. Forests are definitely not playing in the big league or even in the second tier like oil, which was discovered in the advent of the new millennium. While fish and iron are playing in Mauritania’s champions league in terms of revenue generation, forests are more like beach football – refreshing and fun but with minimal revenue.

Iron ore accounts for approximately 40 percent of Mauritania’s export earnings. Unfortunately again for trees, mining iron ore contributes to deforestation. The debate between keeping trees alive and kicking or felling some of them to extract iron, is one that trees can’t win.

Luckily, trees don’t have to make way for fishery to thrive. Mauritania’s proximity to powerful coastal upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich waters has greatly boosted its fishery sector. Such waters are fertile fishing ground. With the exception of Morocco, Mauritania leads Arab countries in export of small fish to Europe.

However, government-provided fishery subsidies to overseas vessels have often threatened to fish stock sustainability. In 2006, Mauritania entered a fisheries partnership agreement with the European Union. It was worth approximately €108 million annually for 6 years and has since expired. A recent fourth round of talks in Brussels failed to yield fruit concerning renewal of the agreement, leading to suspension of talks. Critics are opposed to the previous agreement which allowed 200 EU vessels to fish in Mauritania’s water.

Jamila is a young lady who lives with her parents and five siblings in the beach town of Jreida. Her father is one of Mauritania’s approximately ten thousand artisanal fishermen. The government wants people like him to get more jobs from any new partnership with EU.

In this regard, fishery provides well paying jobs as well as direct revenue for the government. The same cannot be said of forests. EU has a forest cover of 31 percent, a far cry from Mauritania’s 0.2 percent. In this equation, it is easy for trees to be relegated to near irrelevance, as they are seemingly unimportant to the country’s strategic interests.

That should however not be the case because an exponentially expanding forest cover would turn the tide of desertification, consequently opening up more land for agro-forestry which would in turn improve food security and open up diverse green economy opportunities. In addition, other invaluable ecosystem services would be revived, proving the adage that trees are a lot more valuable alive than dead.

The gum acacia tree together with other trees in Mauritania shouldn’t be lonely. After all, they are in the company of 1,100 plant species and 61 mammal species. However, the death knell of extinction has already sounded for big mammals like elephants. Before 1940, at least 400 elephants used to roam the wild. But today, the gentle giants are nowhere to be seen. Similarly, the long-horned, brown-white Sahara Oryx has become extinct in the world.

Gànnaar, as Mauritania is known in wolof, doesn’t have to remain a predominantly desert country forever. Even more important, human slaves who still toil in Mauritania should not have to put up with such inhuman existence.

In February this year, Gulnara Shahinian, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery stressed that, ‘the Government still has to turn its pledges into deeds, and to take more vigorous measures with a view to eliminating slavery and to fully implement the laws and policies.’

Mauritania must heed these words because the scourge of slavery runs much deeper than the entire Sahara desert.

In the meantime, the lonely trees need some company. It’s time for Mauritania to plant a billion trees.

 

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, both history and your country are waiting for you to become the billion tree president.

“Can you believe that guy just did that?” I said to myself in utter disbelief. My mouth hung ajar, my anger was rising, yet a sense of helplessness came over me. Yesterday on my walk back home from the market, I saw one of the most disturbing things I had ever witnessed in my 24 years of life. A grown man who seemed to have no relationship with a street child I saw attempting to cross the road, grabbed the young boy of no more than 10 or 11, taunted him, and then threw him to the ground with no more thought than one would give a piece of litter. And, I might mention that this was all done during rush hour on one of Kigali’s busiest streets and in the presence of one of the man’s accompanying friends at that.

Why I asked myself? What had this little boy ever done to this grown man? Could they possibly have history that I knew nothing of? And if so, does that merit a grown man throwing a young boy to the ground? No, I defiantly told myself yet my steps, riddled with guilt, dictated otherwise as I walked in the opposing direction. I longed to reach out to the little boy who with the same ease as he was thrown to the ground, got up and proceeded on his quest to cross this busy Kigali street, probably not even realizing why what had happened to him was not only wrong, but unacceptable. And, that is where the discomfort of yesterday continues to emanate from.

The young man, too, saw himself as being worthless yet worthy of such treatment because he was a street child. He didn’t have fine clothes, his day to day survival came from panhandling and lending himself to the mercy of unknown powers on a day-to-day basis. And for him, the future was unsure. Sound familiar?

I cannot help but find myself thinking of the continent’s economic development, as I reflect on the horror I saw yesterday. Like a street child, we have been ingrained with a notion of being less than and seemed to have more than willingly accepted it. Instead of us starting our own humanitarian missions to our respective countries, we eagerly send in our CVs to works with foreign organizations who then get to call the shots as to how our respective countries develop. For those of us who can afford it, we head west further solidifying the belief that our countries are hopeless. And like a street child, our efforts focus too much on immediate gain instead of laying down framework to design for long term impact. 

This is not to dismiss those of us who are working towards change in foreign owned non-profits or who went to school abroad, but to cause each and every single one of us to ask ourselves why. Why is it that few African men and women are starting projects to change the state of their countries? Why is it that to make it, we must head abroad to receive a good education although there are schools in our own countries? Why have we accepted, for so long, that the continent wasn’t enough although all the attributes of success are already present in our communities?

It is time for the continent to be present in its development. Being present means consulting first with fellow compatriots for ideas, working with international actors but in a way that is collaborative, a partnership and not just Westerners dictating to African men and women as to how their countries should develop.

I understand that what I am proposing is easier said than done. Currently, there are many African countries plagued by security issues (Nigeria, Kenya, etc). Endemic corruption makes it impossible for not only foreign aid but the taxes paid by hard working African men and women in their respective countries to even be reinvested back in their local economies, just to end up in the pocket of an avaricious politician or big man. But still, there has been no better time than now to take ownership over the future of the continent.

If we continue to state the above problems, which are very real and require multilateral efforts to combat, we will be singing the same tune for decades to come, making marginal gains in the development of our respective countries. The answer to some of Africa’s most pressing dilemmas lies in the capacity of her people. Period. There are too many brilliant African medical professionals, lawyers, teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs adding to the development of Western countries who economically speaking, are already quite far ahead of most African countries.

Some of the most prominent and influential members of governing global bodies in Western countries are African men and women. Clearly that is an obvious indication that the talent, commitment, and passion the continent needs to truly shake off the cobwebs of colonialism and to destroy its everlasting structures lies in the people, however, when will we as Africans start to see that ourselves?

When will we start to ask ourselves, why not me? Why can’t I think of a solutions to HIV/AIDS? Solutions to the lack of infrastructure present in the education system of many African countries? Why can’t I aspire to be a president neutral of the influence of the West? When we start asking ourselves those hard questions and working collaboratively with all interested parties, then might we make progress and then might the continent become what she was destined to be: great.

I want to imagine an Africa where years from now, we speak of her progress and innovation the way we do the West and Asia. I want to imagine an Africa where when speaking of models of democracy (that is respective of African cultural norms) we cite an African country as an example. And, I want to imagine an Africa where its collective human capital genuinely believes that their countries have more to offer and that greatness is a part of their national destiny. 

Until then, I find myself very much troubled as to what I saw yesterday and by the continent’s lack of progress. But even with the feelings of unsettlement, I still have hope for a continent that will one day realise that she was destined for greatness just as I have hope for the street child who in the present might appear to be nothing to many people, entrenched in endemic poverty due to structural instability, and someone who people can help when guilt consumes them, when they have an extra dollar to spare, or when it is in their interest to give to, but an individual nonetheless who has the potential to be at his best for in all of us lies greatness that manifests itself at different times, but is present nonetheless.

It is interesting to tackle the issue of identity from its very first root. In elementary school, students are taught one phrase, like a recitation, and they are supposed to learn it by heart. This phrase is to define how they perceive themselves for a lifetime unless they actually, and unlikely question it. It says: “I am Tunisian, Arab, Muslim, African and Mediterranean”.

As you might tell, the phrase refers to different types of belonging with capital letters: nationality, language (or origin, depends), religion, continent, and region. One who’s familiar with the culture in Tunisia would easily confirm that there isn’t much debate about us being Tunisian, African and Mediterranean. These are the nice parts of the saying. It comes down to the part where we must acknowledge full-heartedly that we are Arabs and Muslims, and that never fails to light a spark of disagreement that could go all the way to various forms of violence, sadly.

Unfortunately, every child is to be programmed. From a very young age, children receive thoughts, often ideologies that they haven’t asked for. This is the dark side of education. The nature of teachings and preaching they receive vary from a country to another.

In my country, the educational system narrates to young underage students which religion they belong to, while in parallel our constitution indicates that Tunisian citizens are free to choose whatever belief they desire. Now I do not critic the educational system itself nor the constitution, but I do see great contradiction in these two existing together in the same time with the same statements.

A child who is asked to recite repetitively “I am Muslim” will grow up believing that that is who he is and what he should be. Children would tend to develop loyalty towards such sacred statement and are very unlikely to question or analyze it: they are hardwired to believe it and their natural reflexes would constantly revolve around it.

It would be more adequate, I believe, if children were taught that they “are born in a country whose majority is Muslim” or “are citizens of a country which the constitution identifies as Muslim”. By stating that, the courses would remain in harmony with the constitution while informing the children of the common belief system of the country they live in.

There is great discrepancy in the fact that teachers and school manuals tell minors who they are supposed to be and which religion they are to follow while having the highest legislative power clearly stating that individuals are free to choose their beliefs for themselves.

Now I move on to the next identity issue in Tunisia that I perceive to be causing greater dissension in the public scene. “I am an Arab” recited by every student of my generation. The issue here is different and more urgent than that of telling children who they are supposed to be. Prior to whether or not it should be taught to children as an identity of theirs, being an Arab needs to be defined urgently. Afterwards Tunisians need to decide, willingly, where they place themselves in regard of this  definition. The definition, more like the definers, need to take into consideration the various connotations that the word “Arab” suggests.

Obviously, it insinuates language. Tunisians, in their daily life informal communications, speak a specific dialect of them that has multiple similarities with the official Arabic language, also called Al Fosha, in which the Quran is written. The similarities are undeniable but Tunisians use the Arabic words with often completely different pronunciations, and sometimes some letters are added or taken from the original Arabic word, making it specific to the Tunisian culture and dialect.

But there is no need to be an expert in linguistics to notice that a considerable number of words existing in the Tunisian dialect have nothing to do with the Arabic language. I mention the French, Italian, Turkish, Spanish (particularly Andalusia) languages as sources of these words along with many other languages. Of course, Tunisians don’t necessarily use the foreign terms as they are, they rather adjust them to their culture and therefore these mutated terms are again specific to Tunisia.

Most importantly, Tunisians use words that are rooted in Tamazight, the language of Amazigh, who lived in North Africa for thousands of years. So if you are to tell me that Tunisians speak Arabic daily, I’d say what a flagrant disregard to the other cultures from which the Tunisian dialect is derived.

Certainly, children are taught the official Arabic from the early age of 6. But let us suppose that a child receives unofficial education and doesn’t learn Arabic at school, while speaking the Tunisian dialect that is only partly Arab, can we call this human an Arab? If a Tunisian citizen is defined as Arab simply because they have learned the language at school, then I consequently have the right to consider myself as French, English and a beginner at being Italian…

Another aspect of being Arab could be linked to my country’s membership in the League of Arab States. I confess that mentioning the Arab League is inspired by a conversation I had with an American woman about identity. At some point I remember mentioning that I don’t consider myself as Arab, so she responded: “Tunisia is a member of the Arab League, which makes you an Arab”.

It was quite confusing to hear her statement. But it is clear that the league is a regional organization (whose name suggests that each of the member states is actually an Arab state, a labeling that I don’t understand the reasoning behind). No country could be granted an identity label solely for its belonging to an organization, regardless of its deep-rootedness.

We cannot discuss the Arab identity without referring to the origins of the locals. This is the most sensitive part of our subject, the hardest to discuss in my perspective. Common sense isn’t enough, sadly, in order to discuss this factor fairly and fruitfully. A great knowledge of archaeology is to be invested in order to debate our origins.

An understanding of the history of wars in which Tunisia has been involved since its oldest civilizations is crucial as well, since it is the only way to know the variety of cultures that formed the Tunisian society as we know it today. That is not enough, because knowing genetic facts about Tunisians, as well as individuals of neighboring and related cultures is mandatory.

It is already demanding enough to require this much of concrete information, but the struggle doesn’t end here. Some of the references that are supposed to provide such data are non-existent, which is caused by the fact that an important culture that once reined North Africa (the Amazigh culture) depended on orally exchanging facts and didn’t actually write them.

Other references have been destroyed, and the burnings of major libraries such as the Library of Alexandria are main causes. Also, some books were written so long ago that their understanding is a hardship to modern generations due to the complexity of the content, notably in terms of language. And here is a bizarre/depressing  fact: some books are out of reach, the few existing copies in public libraries are considered by authorities as too precious and valuable to be provided to the public (yes, they actually keep them exposed and locked behind glass, just like in museums, as if they wanted to tease information seekers.)

Having said that, and knowing that I am ages away from mastering the facts I mentioned above, I allow myself to recall a couple of rather popular and mainstream facts. Arabs originated from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. They invaded Tunisia hundreds of years ago to spread Islam. The Arabic Heritage is strongly present today, often linked with Islam.

Nonetheless, the culture of the Amazigh has succeeded to find its way to us, with language, gastronomy, clothing, landmarks etc.  If we had to draw a timeline, Arabs arrived after the Amazigh and used force to take control. There is no need to judge any previous actions as moral or not. But the question is, are we being reasonable in attributing to the country the identity of the later arrivals? Is it fair to consider a culture as dominant and as that of the majority, only because those who spread it had enough strength and power to almost eradicate the one that already existed?

I leave you to reflect upon this while mentioning a potentially interesting fact: At no point of my education did I study anything about Amazigh. The ancient residents of Tunisia, if mentioned, were often referred to as Berbers (a term often confused with a similar French term meaning cruel, vandal)

 

The history manuals were/are so subjective to the point of using very pejorative terms to describe the Amazigh warriors who opposed Arabs, such as Dihia, a female fighter for the land she reined. 

At that early morning hour before the cock’s crow rents the air, Xana cries. No one sees his tears but when the sun rises, everyone sees the resigned look in his brown eyes. Since the late 90s, he lives in a government resettlement camp on the edge of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. 

He hates the camp so much that… Xana clenches his fists and breathes heavily. His eyes are bloodshot, the result of daily alcohol binges. Back in his ancestral home deep in the Game Reserve, there were no pubs and no alcohol. And no drunkenness.

If you see him from behind, you might think that his lanky frame is the body of an eighteen year old. But when he turns around, the age and pain on his face become instantly evident. Not physical pain. Emotional pain. It trickles out of those bloodshot eyes even as he smiles and grasps your outstretched hand.

One sad morning in the late 90s, (Xana doesn’t remember the exact year), the then twenty year old father of two found himself in the cold and rusty back of a police truck. Sitting all around him were fellow San. Some were protesting loudly while others like him were already lost in an empty distant stare. The cops were not arresting them, but were instead evicting them from their ancestral homeland.

Wait a minute! Who gets evicted from their very own ancestral homeland? You may wonder.

Well, the San people, also referred to as bushmen. Because their homeland, where they have lived for centuries, is in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Although a major reason why this reserve was created in 1961 was to protect the traditional way of life of the San people, the tables have since turned big time. 

At 52,800 square km, Central Kalahari Game Reserve is twice the size of Rwanda and is the second largest game reserve in the world. Now, that’s HUGE. That’s multiplied trillions of square inches. Despite its sheer size, every inch on this mammoth reserve counts. Before they were evicted, the San interacted intimately with this land daily and consequently knew it like the backs of their calloused hands. If you looked at the reserve through the practiced eyes and keen senses of the San, you would see the wonders of pristine nature.

On some of the reserve’s acres, waist length grass grows happily. Its greenish-yellow color gives it an identity crisis – should it pay homage to the rainy season that has just ended or embrace the summer sun that is out in full force?

If you open your eyes wide, concentrate and look really, really carefully, you will see the golden yellow skin of a lioness that is lurking in the grass, ignoring the two giraffes that are barely fifty metres away and waiting for any small herbivore that it’s sure will pass by in the course of the day. Madam lioness is particularly eager for kudus or springboks to fall into its ambush as the two antelopes have tender, sweet meet that would be perfect for its cubs. This particular lioness is a daughter of Kalahari, born and bred in the vast game reserve.

Other inches of the reserve are bereft of grass and replete with dry sand that is interspersed with tiny rocks and occasional boulders. Two steps away from one such boulder, a tiny bird known as ant eating chat stands alert on the hot ground. In the Tswana language that is widespread in Botswana, the dark-brown bird is known as leping. It’s also a daughter of Kalahari and has flown over the fertile desert for ages. As a boy, Xana would wave at the birds as they flew merrily above their hut. From time to time, he would also catch glimpses of the shy lioness and flash at it a boyish grin.

On other acres of the reserve, close to twenty thousand zebras can be seen migrating to greener pastures. What a sight! Their black and white stripes fill the desert floor as they follow their instincts and gallop purposefully to those elusive greener pastures.

The wildebeest too can be seen grazing, playing, galloping and napping. About four decades earlier, the wildebeest had been almost ten times the current population. They didn’t die from a poacher’s bullet or from a lethal disease. Rather, they died when a long sturdy fence was erected to prevent them from coming into contact with domestic animals, particularly cattle. It was deemed that such interaction would spread fatal diseases like foot and mouth disease. Because they couldn’t migrate to greener pastures, the wildebeest died in their hundreds of thousands.

Before diamond was discovered, beef was Botswana’s leading foreign exchange earner. Adjacent to the reserve is Ghanzi, Botswana’s beef capital. At least 75 percent of the beef exported by Botswana Meat Commission comes from this area. Most of these beef exports end up in the European Union, whose stringent health rules prompted Botswana’s government to erect the fences, commonly referred to as veterinary fences. These fences separated wild animals from cattle and thus ensured that cattle would not catch diseases from the wild animals. 

Away from the fence, deep in the reserve, the hot atmosphere is now shining bright like diamonds – literally. A $4.9 billion diamond mine opened in September within the reserve although diamonds were discovered much earlier in the eighties.

While this diamond mining has significant benefits to Botswana’s economy, the social and environmental costs are not as rosy. Although the government denies it, many link the diamond discovery with the eviction of the San people.

In addition, extractive industries like diamond mining have not always had happy endings in Africa.

While Botswana’s diamond mining cannot be compared with the horrors depicted in the movie ‘blood diamonds,’ the diamonds’ potential to breed inequality and corruption cannot be ignored. Botswana is of course a sterling example of a country that is rechanneling its mineral earnings to development. But as a Swahili proverb warns, ‘praising a chef too much can cause him to add too much water into the soup.’

As for environmental impacts, only time will tell if the diamonds will be good or bad for the reserve’s overall ecosystem. If the veterinary fence had disastrous consequences for the reserve’s biodiversity, there is no telling if the glittering diamonds will follow a similar disastrous path or not.

Diamonds, with their million-dollar sparkle, are shining and smiling all the way from the reserve to the bank. What can easily be lost in the drumbeats of the new found prosperity is the fact that the reserve is the bedrock the diamonds – without it, there could have been no mining of diamonds. Since sustainability is about giving back as much as, or more than you have taken out, Central Kalahari Game Reserve must be the key beneficiary of diamond proceeds. In other words, the diamonds must leave the reserve better than they found it.

Given that you cannot talk about the reserve without making reference to the San people, they must similarly be key beneficiaries of the diamonds that lurk in the belly of their ancestral homeland. 

Xana knows about the diamonds but he has never seen them. He doesn’t really care.

‘They have taken away our bush and taken away our manhood,’ Xana says as he sips the warm beer, ‘now we are not even bushmen.’

 

Note: Xana is a composite charachter based on real people in Central Kalahari Game Reserve