BBC correspondent ,Mark Doyle went on the road to ask this question across the continent. He’s come back with three documentaries. Part one – Africa and The World- airs Monday on the BBC World Service Radio.
Mark will join us on WHYS do discuss the issue and share some of the things that he has come across during his visit. Below are all the posts he sent us during his trip. The first one you’ll read is the last on he sent us from Kenya.
Read the other posts below to find out about his visit to other parts of the continent. The last post is the one he sent first explaining the idea behind his documentary. Now we want you to speak to Mark and share your thoughts. Why, do you think, is Africa poor? Also, post any questions you have to Mark here.
Today I’ve seen more of the city of Nairobi than I did during a year-long stint of living here in the early 1990s.
Still in pursuit of answers to the question “Why is Africa Poor?” (the material I am gathering is for a series of BBC World Service radio programmes to be broadcast from August), I came here to look at urban issues.
My host for the day, architect and town planner Mumo Musuva, took me far and wide in the city which Kenya Airways proudly announces, in its landing message, is “the home of the United Nations in Africa”.
Mumo drove me past the big UN complex in the Nairobi suburb of Gigiri and alongside the huge, ugly utilitarian fortress next to it that is the newly-built US Embassy here (“Photography Not Permitted”).
During my time here in 1993-4 the UN complex was one of the few places I knew well. I spent most of that year shuttling between coup crises in Burundi; the Black Hawk Down era in Somalia; and the Rwandan genocide.
Busy, disturbing times.In those days, Kenya was, for foreign correspondents, largely a place for sleep and rest.
So I had not been to Mumo’s childhood area, the middle class suburb of Eastlands, before; and I had not seen the slum of Muthare close-up.
Muthare is a rotting expanse of rusting tin shacks as far as the eye can see – and it’s slap-bang next to the elite Muthaiga suburb with its manicured plots, many of which were carved out illegally from public forests by what are known in Kenya as “land-grabbers”.
Seeing the city through the eyes of a Kenyan architect and planner was fascinating. Mumo believes that bad or non-existent town planning is a cause of poverty.
Nairobi is a place where chaotic “informal sector” industries are allowed to flourish in what are supposed to be residential areas. These industries pollute the environment with noise and rubbish. But, of course, they also provide vital jobs.
“We need to harness the power of these activities”, says Mumo; “and we also need to see their advantages”.
The key, perhaps, would be to provide services (water, electricity, roads) in exchange for modest taxes. That way, the vast energy of the informal sector could benefit everyone, and not be seen as a nuisance.
The trouble is that in Kenya few believe their taxes are being properly spent.
I’m not sure what the solution is to all this, but I’m fumbling towards thinking that Africa is not, in fact, poor at all. There’s everything here: resources, people, water, sunshine, energy and often – even in the case of some rare politicians! – goodwill.
But these things are not joined up by good planning. Maybe President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia was right when told me; “Africa is not poor, it is just poorly managed.”
I’ll try to think about that further for the radio programmes. But meanwhile, I’ll tell you one thing Africa certainly is – and that is Big. Very Big.
Flying from Liberia to the western Kenyan town of Kisumu (my first stopoff in the “home of the UN in Africa”), via Accra, Ghana, then Nairobi, took me almost 24 hours.
The only respite on the flights was when the Ghanaian nation soccer squad, the Black Stars, boarded the plane in Accra en route to a training cam in Kenya and then their World Cup qualifier in Sudan.
The Kenyan Airways stewardesses transformed their usual friendly smiles to ecstatic grins as the yellow, green and red-shirted heroes sauntered on with their bling watches and latest iPods prominently on display.
Kisumu, on Lake Victoria (Africa’s largest freshwater lake), gave me a chance to look into two issues endemic across tropical Africa – malaria and the scourge of the river and lake-bourne weed, Water Hyacinth.
So, two places very new me in the space of just a few days – the delightfully laid-back and in parts very attractive town of Kisumu, and bits of Nairobi I have never seen before.
Africa is Big.
I feel so privileged to be travelling through.