A Continent Short on Bridges

Somewhere over the River Ubangi, in Likuali, the land of the pygmies, a white hunter once told me:" In this world all national borders are artificial. For thousands of years the only thing that has counted here has been the tribes and their laws. But who can work out the complicated geography of ethnic and tribal divisions?"

In the 1960s and 70s I travelled extensively in Africa. A trip across the Sahel states, from Mauritania to Ethiopia, and a voyage up the Ubangi river in the Congo were my first attempts to comprehend this huge continent. During these journeys I observed the consequences of the coup d' ├ętat in the Congo and the catastrophic drought and famine in the Sahel. Only then did I fully grasp the opinion voiced by a wise man:" As regards the Unknown, Africa is the Absolute" .

The events which have occurred on the Dark Continent during this century confirm the now-proverbial words of Pliny the Elder:" There is always something new from Africa" . The media are full of reports from the continent' s various regions. But we do not hear the good news of positive changes and progress. The majority of the incoming information unfortunately still concerns wars, revolutions, disease, drought and famine.

Few non-Africans are familiar with the continent. Africa has a climate difficult for Europeans to bear, it is often dangerous, its infrastructure is not well developed, and, to quote the words of the famous American reporter, John Gunther," It is a continent short on bridges".

Cape Town City Centre

With an area equal to one-fifth of the land of our entire planet, Africa is inhabited by 700 million people of numerous races, nations and tribes. They speak thousands of different languages. They live in dozens of states. Often it takes only a 100-kilometre drive to find yourself in another world: The landscape will change, the people and the political system will be different and you may find yourself in quite different conditions of safety.

It is difficult to be optimistic about Africa these days. After all, vicious fighting and massacres of millions of people recently took place in Rwanda, the Congo and Angola. Terrible diseases also take their toll, among them particularly AIDS, which has decimated the populations of Uganda, the Congo, Kenya and other countries. Illiteracy is common, drinking water is often lacking and there is a high death rate of new-born babies.

But Africa also has all the treasures of the world, including diamonds, gold and uranium. It has wonderful flora and fauna, which unfortunately are systematically being destroyed. It has vast forests, picturesque coastlines and enchanting mountains.

Africa does have its 'rivieras' , but for the most part it is a land of huge jungles, deserts and savanna. Is travel in the Dark Continent as dangerous as most people think? People tend to demonize Africa, forgetting that the streets of New York or Warsaw can also be far from safe. Are the people really so uncivilised? No, rather they are cut off from the civilisations we know and their appearance and behaviour stem from a different civilisation. Are the animals so dangerous? Well, yes, but an encounter with a lion in Tanzania may be less harmful than coming across a football hooligan in Europe. And as for insects, there are ways to limit contact with them to a minimum.

We find different mentalities at each latitude between Tangier and Durban. We encounter different peoples, different ways of living, but most of all we are confronted with a different rhythm of life. Apart from in the large metropolises such as Cairo or Lagos, time runs slower in Africa. This irritates the white man, but also fascinates him. This is where the magnetism of the continent comes from and is the reason why discoveries can continually be made and surprises are ever-present. And maybe this is why such an astonishing number of people decide to travel to Africa or even settle at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro or in the delta of the Okawongo River.

Olgierd Budrewicz