Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Till selfishness do us apart

I often wonder why analysts fail to put personal selfishness on top of their list of the woes besetting us in Africa.

Recently, I was in the Bijlmer, one of the biggest suburbs of the Dutch city of Amsterdam.

Bijlmer is one of the massive housing projects built in the 1970s to provide accommodation to the growing and increasingly affluent Dutch citizens.

Bijlmer’s high-rise and low priced apartments attracted most of the immigrants that trooped to the Netherlands as migrant-workers when the Dutch economy was booming. Bijlmer is home to most of the Africans that live in the Netherland.

Few Africans will sojourn in the Netherlands without ever having a thing or two to do in the Bijlmer. It is a mini-Africa that attracts those that yearns for anything that remotely resembles the homeland they left.

Like most estates peopled with low-income earners, the Bijlmer soon developed into a vast, over-crowded ghetto with reputation for every vice known to sociologists.
One of the interesting things about the Dutch is their sense of social fairness to their less privileged fellow citizens.

Although ostensibly a capitalist nation, the Netherlands did not practice the same Jurassic economic and social policies that have blighted that class-ridden Isle of Iniquities that still call itself Great (?) Britain.

Aware that a society that fails to cater for its most vulnerable asks for serious problems, the Dutch evolved a social-democratic system whereby there is a safety net for society’s underprivileged.

They also set a minimum standard of living below which no Dutch citizen is expected to fall. A guaranteed, free and quality education ensured that every Dutch citizen got, at least, basic education for free – courtesy of the Dutch state.

Sadly, times are changing and the Netherlands is changing at such reckless pace that it seems heeded in the direction of the UK. Unsurprising, the Dutch society today suffers from some of the social afflictions that has devastated the USA and the UK.

Massive cuts in social programmes are impoverishing large segments of the Dutch society with attendant social consequences. It is possible today to see pockets of poverty in the Netherlands.

Of course, we are not yet talking about the poor standards we have in Africa for which we dance ourselves silly in praise of God!

Few years ago the Dutch embarked on transforming the Bijlmer. The high-rise, crime-ridden apartments were pulled down. In their places were built new, detached and pricey houses.

The down-turn is that the new apartments, unlike the previous buildings which low-income earners love so much to hire, are strictly for sale.

The Bijlmer has been totally transformed that people who, like me, visit after some years of absence, have difficulty recognizing the New Bijlmer.

Apart from the new shiny apartments, I also saw in the Bijlmer, several sport facilities scattered all over the place.

Apart from the football fields, there are gyms and facilities for weight-lifting, lawn and table tennis, gymnastic, volley and basket ball and host of other sports.

All were built in open space in the several parks that dotted the Bijlmer. They were built by the government for citizens to enjoy free of charge.

As I sat, watched and admired many of the facilities, I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of sadness and anger. The sight brought the stark truth home to me that we in Africa have lots of catch up to do.

Why is it that the whole of Ghana cannot boast of a single public swimming?

In years gone by, we are noted for our sense of community and for our culture of sharing. Travellers like Ibn Batuta waxed poetic about our forebears’ honesty, sense of justice and fair-play. They talked about how secure and safe our societies were.

They spoke about how our kings abhor theft and any form of larceny. Ancient chroniclers like the Dutchman, Dapper, wrote about the beauty and cleanliness of our villages, town sand cities.

Today, travelers to our shore will only marvel at our capacity for dishonesty and our penchant for primitive acquisition. They will shake their heads at the filth in which we live. The planlessness of our towns and cities will baffle them. The noise pollution in our towns will drive them insane. The crime rate, both petty and major, will make them cringe with fear. Our inability to keep time will make their heads spin. Our vast hypocrisy (pretending to be what we are not) will confound them. The absolute disorder in our society will confuse them. The sheer indiscipline in our society will stagger any visitor to our shore. They will be bewildered by our inability to get the most basic of things right. Our penchant to take one step forward and take twenty steps backward will stun them. Only a visitor with the thickest of skins will not be staggered by our absolute lack of any sense of direction.

Am I the only one who sits and wonder what exactly is wrong with us as a people?
When and how did we manage to get it so spectacularly wrong? When and how did we manage to develop such minimalist mindsets that we take pride in the mundane and the petty that will give other people offense?

As I sat and admired what the Dutch have built for their citizens, I cannot but contrast it with what we have in our countries in Africa.

There is not a single park in the fast-growing city of Kasoa where I live. There is no recreation facility of any description. There is not even a single space that has not been sold or rented out!

Apart from Accra, Kumasi and Tema, I don’t know of any other city or town in Ghana that can boast of a public park.

In August of this year (2011), I visited the Polish capital of Warsaw. I was utterly amazed by the transformation the Polish people have been able to bring about in the twenty years since they liberated their country from the grip of Soviet communism.

So totally transformed is Poland today that it has become a full-fledged member of the European Union (EU).

Since I travelled from an EU-member country, I was not checked or controlled at the Warsaw Airport. I was accorded the privileged of an EU resident.

I saw in Warsaw a modern, clean and thriving modern city that boast all the modern amenities a major European city provide.

Warsaw, the city of two million people has well-designed, well-maintained transport system. Everything was orderly, discipline and clean. Even in the old part of town, I did not see pollution of any kind. No one blast music at high decibel to disturb neighbours and pose public nuisance.

Warsaw is a city of well-kept parks. I learnt that fully forty percent of the city was set aside for parks. The profusion of greenery makes it hard to notice that this is a city of two million inhabitants.

Warsaw boasts of forty universities and school of higher education. And we do not talk of the type of one-room mushroom ‘universities’ we boast about around here.

It is always difficult to come back home and see the low level we remain in despite all the pronouncements of our officials.

We have been independent for fifty four years, yet metal contraption (trotros) is the best we could provide our people as means of transport. Our trotro will not meet the requirements to transport cattle in the EU. We have not added a single meter to the rail system the British left behind. We have run our national airline aground through corruption and sheer ineptitude.

It galls to see how we have come to accept the poor environment in which we live as our lot. It is like we have thrown our hands up and surrender to fate.
Most of our people live in conditions that will not deem acceptable for pets in the EU.

In this time and age, many people in our dear land still build houses without toilet and bathing facilities; families still troop to the beaches and bushes to answer the call of nature.

It is in this degrading environment that we eat, sleep, play, work, love our women, give birth to our children and raise them. They grow up thinking that it is the natural order of thing.

Until they grow up, that is. Then they watch foreign TV stations. They surf the internet and interact with their mates from other lands.

They cannot help but wonder why their parents (us) sentence our brains to exile whilst other people were using theirs to build habitable environment for their children. They can see and contrast the abysmal, unplanned gigantic ghettoes we have with well-planned cities other people have built.

And, hypocritically, we pretend not to know why our children have nothing but utter contempt for us.

All over our country, spaces ear-marked for sport and recreational facilities have been sold off by visionless chiefs in cahoots with corrupt officials.

Do we expect our children whom we deprive of good lives to start to celebrate us? Do we expect to see admiration in their eyes when they discover that we have sold off their patrimony and wasted the proceeds on drink and frivolities? Do we expect them to treat us with anything but utter disdain when we bequeath absolutely nothing worthy to them?

It remains a mystery to me why there is no probe at the Lands Registry department to ascertain how officials gave approval for the sale of lands allocated for social amenities.

But then I might be asking for the moon since governments (past and present) joined in selling off public land to their cronies.

What crossed my mind as I admire the sport facilities in the Bijlmer is that were it to be in Africa, a corrupt official will ‘mis-appropriate’ (read: steal) the money.

He will then use the money to put up a massive structure in which he will install all the modern facilities money (especially stolen ones) can build. He will not forget to wall and fence off his mansion into which only the few he initiated will be invited. The visitors will hypocritically praise his acumen.

Rather than be cursed and stoned, the corrupt official who stole public money to build private edifice will become the toast of town. He will become top pal with religious and political leaders. He will get the top table at churches, functions and occasions. Envelop-chasing journalists will invent fictitious story to make him look good. Musicians will sing songs in his praise. He will be awarded bogus chieftaincy and academic titles. A National Honor will even be bestowed on him.

This is our biggest tragedy in Africa.


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