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Tuesday November 27, 2012

The great African getaway

Amid the dreariness of waiting for the next general election, a spontaneous trip to Kenya and Senegal seems like the perfect antidote for this writer.

THE main narrative of Joseph Conrad’s only novel set in Africa, The Heart of Darkness, begins and ends in the damp, dreary Belgian city of Brussels.

For the Polish seafarer-turned-novelist, the northern European capital was the apogee of bourgeois smugness and hypo­crisy: a city crammed with lavish palaces and public buil­dings funded by a shadowy corporation that had enslaved millions in the Congo as it squeezed a rich tribute of ivory, rubber and decades later, cobalt and copper.

My own, much more recent fascination with Africa can also be traced back to the comic hero Tintin’s hometown.

In fact, the Brussels I visited last month was as “sepulchral” and misty as Conrad eerily described it.

What was I doing in Brussels? Well, having been appointed to the Board of Trustees of an NGO called the International Crisis Group (ICG), I was in the city to attend my first board meeting.

For those who don’t know, the ICG is an independent non-profit committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.

It is led by the highly-regarded Canadian jurist Louise Arbour, formerly of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and with a staff count of over 150 spread across the globe.

I have used their research and analysis for well over 15 years so I was very pleased to be involved, especially since my fellow board members included George Soros, Javier Solana and the Pakistani lawyer-cum-activist Asma Jahangir.

For those interested in ICG’s work, I re­commend checking about its website. The reports are free and the coverage – on the South China Sea issue for example – are extremely thorough.

Having said that, I found myself most intrigued by the sessions on Africa, so much so that in the short breaks, I’d dash out to explore the local bookstores and antique shops in the Place Sablon and Avenue Louise, which were full of artefacts from both West and Central Africa.

In fact, a lengthy and extremely comprehensive session on Sudan prompted me to search for maps and histories of the deeply-troubled nation.

When I returned home to Kuala Lumpur, my bags were hopelessly overweight.

I also had an invitation from a fellow board member, Mo Ibrahim, to attend his Founda­tion’s Governance Weekend in Dakar, Senegal.

At the time he invited me, we were sitting in a restaurant just off the glittering Grand Place.

Frankly, the idea of travelling halfway across the globe to West Africa seemed ridiculous and just a little crazy – but who am I, if not crazy?

So, spurred on in part by a desire to escape the dreariness of waiting for the 13th general election, I packed my bags and headed off to Africa – boarding a Kenya Airways 777 late one night in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport – while also trying to figure out whether I’d lost my sanity.

Landing in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport was an eye-opener in itself as my fellow passengers rushed off to board their respective connecting flights to destinations as exotic as Kigali, Luanda, Lubumbashi and Juba – names I’d only ever seen on an atlas.

Plunging into Nairobi was both enthralling and enervating. The Kenyan capital has both Jakarta-style traffic jams as well as a reputation for crime.

Still, I dashed around meeting journalists, activists, political analysts and researchers with one hand very firmly gripping my knapsack.

During dinner with friends at their farmhouse high above the city in the lush, wooded Ngong Hills – where the Danish writer Karen Blixen once lived – I marvelled at the city’s raw energy, vibrancy and dynamism.

Three days later, I clambered onto another plane, mentally preparing myself for a nine-hour journey to Dakar via Abidjan.

Once again, I wondered whether my frustration with Malaysian politics justified roaming so far from home?

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Governance Weekend provided me with even more food for thought.

Indeed, there were moments when I felt as if I was back in Indonesia circa 2002: witnessing the inception of something very dramatic and loaded with potential.

The weekend was a flurry of encounters and conversations – some extended though many were tantalisingly brief.

There was lunch with the subdued but thoughtful South African Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, a bit of gyrating on stage with singer Angelique Kidjo whose soaring vocals electrified the auditorium, as well as a meeting with one of the most impressive young leaders I’ve ever come across – Cameroonian banker Mamadou Toure, who spoke, French, German, Spanish and English.

Having chaired a session with the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, Mamadou described the NGO he had set up, Africa2.0, as well as the various deals he had helped put together, including one for the Nigerian cement tycoon Aliko Dangote.

He talked about Dangbara, one of the largest and now most profitable cement plants in the world.

At that point, I knew that I was in the right place at the right time.

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