Skip to content

Dereliction Express

Care and maintenance in Africa and beyond

The yard is a mess. The thatched roof leaks. The mud hut looks about to fall down. Is it for lack of money? But the typical sub-Saharan country is overrun with western charities, crawling with white do-gooders, and awash with philanthropic funds. According to Martin Meredith’s recent The State of Africa, over US$300 billion has been sunk in the region.

Or is it that nobody cares? Are there simply not enough people willing to uphold standards of maintenance, amenity, and appearance? Not enough people who care when things break down, or have the gumption to fix them up when only a nail or a lick of paint is needed?

Some of us would point to a wretched colonial history that shattered traditions and threw maintenance values—the continuous care of house and home—into disarray. But you can’t blame colonial history for everything. The majority of countries in Africa have been independent for two generations now. Here we’re talking about the present situation and about people’s attitudes today.

* * *

Three things are thought to explain much Third World decline and dereliction. In Africa misappropriated funds heads the list—the Big Man at the top plays Winner Takes All—and there’s no question this is fundamental. Others point to the lawlessness of life where nothing gets done because even the smallest investment is always at risk… so, nothing gets done.

A third explanation sees communal claims and the parasitism of extended family, clan, and tribe making individual progress impossible and nepotism inevitable. These reasons for the engulfing mess and hopelessness come variously combined in different places—as we find in the reports of Tim Harford, Paul Theroux, and V. S. Naipaul.

Case one: Cameroon

At first sight Cameroon’s troubles look like a straightforward game of Winner Takes All. In Tim Harford’s recent book The Undercover Economist a Cameroonian highway “is a strip of potholes that 20 years ago was a road”, there’s been no serious maintenance for 19 years, and if you ask whether people complain you’re told “yes, they complain, but nothing is done.”

“There is plenty of money coming from the World Bank and from France and Britain and America, but President Biya and his friends put it in their pockets. They do not spend it on the roads.”

This is the standard “top-down” explanation for African dereliction, and in the case of public highways it is surely true. In Cameroon and elsewhere the link between high-level political theft and poor public facilities is direct and obvious. Harford deploys a theory of government that distinguishes the benefits of long-term from short-term despotism. Short-term despots take the money and run; long-term despots buy fleets of Mercedes, find they need decent roads to drive on, and are forced with extreme reluctance to fill in a few of the holes. Ergo, long-term despots are best.

But what our author says about lawlessness and endemic violence is more revealing. It stifles economic initiative at every turn, and the effect on public morale is devastating. Though the rot starts with government, he writes, it afflicts the entire society, and in the extract below he explains why the absence of law, of enough honest men and women, and of incorruptible institutions, paralyses modern life and economic progress:

There’s no point investing in a business because the government will not protect you against thieves. (So you might as well become a thief yourself.) There’s no point in paying your phone bill because no court can make you pay. (So there’s no point being a phone company.) There’s no point setting up an import business because the customs officers will be the ones to benefit. (So the customs office is under-funded and looks even harder for bribes.) There’s no point getting an education because jobs are not awarded on merit. (And you can’t borrow money for school fees because the bank can’t collect on the loan.)

Hernando de Soto at the Institute for Democracy in Peru has emphasized the importance of legal title to land for there to be any hope of residential progress. The situation described by Tim Harford supports this general argument. But above and beyond freehold title, a man in Cameroon will not invest in business, not establish a company, not even bother with education because all ventures and investments are permanently at risk.

Nor is he likely to fix the sagging gate or give the window frames a lick of paint. According to The Undercover Economist – a recent book from OUP containing a brilliant analysis of globalization and economic progress – lawlessness is making Africa a social and economic desert.

Case two: Malawi

Reporting from Malawi, Paul Theroux writes that at one time the country was in tolerable order, but now that everything has broken, collapsed, and fallen into ruin, there is neither the will nor the capacity to fix it up.

Visiting a school where he taught in 1962, Theroux found it almost unrecognisable forty years later:

“What had been a set of school buildings in a large grove of trees was a semi-derelict compound of battered buildings in a muddy open field. The trees had been cut down, the grass was chest-high.

At first glance the place was so poorly maintained as to seem abandoned: broken windows, doors ajar, mildewed walls, gashes in the roofs, and just a few people standing around, empty-handed, doing nothing but gaping at me.

I walked to the house I had once lived in. The building had once lain behind hedges, in a bower of blossoming shrubs, but the shrubbery was gone, replaced by a small scrappy garden of withered maize and cassava at one corner…

The building was scorched and patched, one sooty wall where the boiler fire was fed, and the veranda roof broken. Mats lay in the driveway, mounds of white flour drying on it—except that falling rain had begun to turn it to paste. Faggots of firewood had been thrown in a higgledy-piggledy stack outside the kitchen.”

The once orderly Soche School had been founded by Sir Martin Roseveare, a “meticulous green-fingered gardener”, and he and his wife had taught there for many years. Both the Roseveares are now dead, but there is a book of memoirs by Sir Martin with the title “Joys, Jobs and Jaunts” suggesting the energy they brought to every activity in their lives, and the delight they took in caring for house and home.

* * *

Theroux was a member of the Peace Corps on his original visit to Malawi. In Dark Star Safari he says it is not for him to blame the Africans who inherited the estate for “chopping the trees up for firewood, or slashing the hedges, or growing cassava where I had grown petunias”, or even for turning an English chalet-bungalow into an unlovely hut. Yet he feels bound to comment on the needless and preventable dereliction. “I did regret that the paint had peeled from the trim and eaves, that the wood had rotted and brickwork had cracked and the windows had slipped from their frames.”

Malawi suffered under a long-term despot, Dr Hastings Banda, but it’s hard to see how he can be blamed for the universal desolation. Yet as soon as Theroux asks whose fault it is, “the government” is blamed: two million dollars from a European donor country had allegedly been embezzled by Malawi’s finance minister. And when he finds all the books in a once useful library have been stolen, and it is now “a black hole of ignorance and plunder”, a young visitor from Scotland, keen to do good wherever good can be done, says defensively that there’s “a serious money shortage.”

But that’s not the point. What is missing at the Soche School has to do with attitude and morale. What is lacking is work and care. “How much does a broom cost?” Theroux asks. “The students could sweep this place and cut the grass. I don’t think it’s a money problem. I think it’s more serious. No one cares. You’re here from Scotland to do the work, and you’re willing, so why should anyone help?” A deep dependency has taken root. The prevailing attitude is that if someone will come all the way from Scotland to sweep the floor, why not let them?

I wanted to see some African volunteers caring for the place, sweeping the floor, cutting grass, washing windows, gluing the spines back onto the few remaining books, scrubbing the slime off the classroom walls.

* * *

At a dinner given in his honor Theroux meets the vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi and a sometime Malawian ambassador to Germany. The subject of the expulsion of Indian traders and shop-keepers comes up. “The Indians were chased away,” says the ex-ambassador. “We wanted Africans to be given a chance to run the shops. So that Africans could go into business. The shops were handed over. I bought one myself!”

With what result? asks Theroux.

Ha-ha! Not much. It didn’t work. They all got finished!

The result of this deliberate destruction of Indian commercial activity was that throughout Malawi’s rural areas there were soon no shops at all—“and, twenty-seven years later, still no shops.” When Theroux points this out the ex-ambassador turns to ridiculing Indian business acumen as a contemptible numerical obsession. “They sit there, you see, and they have these little pieces of paper, and have these columns of numbers. And one Indian is running the calculator, and another is counting the sacks of flour and the tins of condensed milk. One-two-three. One-two-three.”

Theroux comments:

What this educated African in his plummy British voice intended as mockery—the apparent absurdity of all this counting—was the description of people doing a simple inventory of goods in a shop.

“We Africans are not raised in this way,” the ex-ambassador goes on, nodding to the others for approval. “What do we care about shops and counting? We have a much freer existence. We have no interest in this. Shops are not our strong point.” Then as the evening draws to a close he finally acknowledges another problem—the inability, in societies dominated by family, clan, and tribe, to protect one’s property from communal exploitation by parasitic relatives:

I’ll tell you why these shops didn’t work out, said the former ambassador, addressing the table at large. When Africans run businesses their families come and stay with them and eat all their food—just live off them. As soon as an African succeeds in something he has his family cadging from him. Not so?

That is true, brother, the other man said.

And we are not cut out for this shop-keeping and book-keeping and (he winked at me) this number crunching.

This infuriates Theroux:

I had never heard such bullshit… The man was saying: This is all too much for us. We cannot learn how to do business. We must be given money, we must be given sinecures, because we don’t know how to make a profit.

I said, If you’re no good at book-keeping and keeping track of expenses, why do you expect donor countries to go on giving you money?

* * *

Today, long after Malawi’s book-keeping Indians were driven out with blows and intimidation, and their shops abandoned, the surviving commercial activity in rural areas consists largely of women traders sitting in the mud selling bananas and peanuts.

Meanwhile the academic and bureaucratic African elite enjoy the “freer” and certainly better-fed existence represented by this dinner party, using incomes that can only be obtained from western aid both to load the table with wine and food, and to ensure their children are educated in Europe and the USA.

Case three: Trinidad

Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him a nine years’ lease of a garden, and he will convert it into a desert… The magic of property turns sand into gold. Arthur Young, 1788

Is this the problem? Is the lack of a proprietorial ethic underwritten by clear and enforceable law the reason why the yard is a mess, the thatched roof leaks, the house looks about to fall down? It is certainly part of the problem in many places. But the belief that the secure ownership of property will on its own ensure care, maintenance, and the preservation of civilized standards can be misleading, as V. S. Naipaul’s account of the terrible Tulsis of Trinidad suggests.

The Tulsis are rich, not poor. No political despot is depriving their country of funds, no hierarchy of bandits lie in waiting for them, and while it is true that they represent an extended Hindu family with sons and daughters, husbands, widows, wives, and innumerable children, clan or family parasitism is not the issue. Yet what happens when they move into the colonial splendour of the Shorthills Estate closely resembles the fate of the Roseveare bungalow in Malawi.

Once owned by a French family, their new and grandiose establishment has a swimming pool, a cricket field much used by local villagers, and a driveway lined with palms. There are woods of cedar and cocoa trees, shaded walks through orange groves, stands of avocado and paw-paw, a cherry tree and a great mango tree too. Inside the house a folding screen “separated the regal drawing-room from the regal dining-room, and there was a multiplicity of rooms whose purposes were uncertain.”

Because the estate has been neglected in recent years it is in need of attention, but having spread themselves luxuriously about its spacious rooms the Tulsis wait for others to fix things up—and everything slides.

Someone cuts down the mango tree and builds a kennel-like hut. Plundered avocados and paw-paws are sold to cafes in Port of Spain. The cherry tree is axed. And when the palm trees lining the drive are felled, their edible hearts, which are thought to have medicinal value, are devoured by Mrs Tulsi herself. Next an entire forest of cedars are levelled to provide timber for a furniture factory: but the factory is a chimera and the cedar ends up as firewood. Unrepaired, the electricity generator is melted down and its lead made into dumb-bells. The cricket pavilion is knocked over and replaced by a cowshed. The plumbing remains broken, the toilets unusable—a latrine is built on the hillside behind.

Ravaged and looted, a large part of the estate is now destroyed by fire and ends in charred and smoking desolation. Local people were “confirmed in their belief that their village had been taken over by vandals.”

Care and maintenance

In the poet’s lexicon care is synonymous with burdens, worry, stress, even depression (begone dull care!) and to be “free of care” provides one definition of happiness. Well, let’s face it: care and maintenance require steady attention. Yards must be swept, cracked walls mended, thatch repaired to keep out the weather. In short, work must be done.

But the story of the Tulsis of Trinidad raises larger issues too. A House for Mr Biswas is a novel, a great novel, and like all the best fiction its meanings reach well beyond the covers of the book. The tale of the all-destroying Tulsis tells us what can happen when people inherit a civilization they know little about, seem not to value, have no real use for, and thoughtlessly wreck and ruin.

Just as the English chalet-bungalow in Malawi becomes reduced to an African hut, so the French colonial estate is turned into a wilderness of cowsheds, tree-stumps, and latrines. The barbarians have taken over—but this is not the forgivable barbarism of the oppressed. It is the less forgivable barbarity of a prosperous elite who might be expected to know better, yet show only indifference, habitual indolence, and neglect instead of care. That it applies just as much to the barbarians within the West as to the less fortunate in the world outside should go without saying.

* * *

At the end of that unusual and original book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—a book that has much to say about care—an eleven-year-old boy, who has ridden behind on his father’s Honda from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean, asks

“Can I have a motorcycle when I get old enough?’

His father replies: “If you take care of it.” They then discuss what taking care of something means, and the boy wonders if he will be able to cope. Is it going to be hard? he asks. “Not if you have the right attitudes his father replies. “It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.” That goes for civilization too.

Reading: Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist: Exposing why the rich are rich, the poor are poor―and why you can never buy a decent used car! (Harford’s book is an indispensable guide to modern global economics.)  Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari. V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Posted in Africana.