Beginning August 23, Barbados will be the venue of a 10 day Bicentennial Global Dialogue, an African Diaspora conference that will include discussions on economic, political, historical, social, and cultural issues that link the Caribbean with Africa (see report). The conference is supposed to help preparation for interministerial meetings of the Caribbean and African Union in South Africa, November 16-18.
Many ideas are circulating about how stronger connections can be built between Africa and the Caribbean, and the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade provides a good symbolic anchor for these ideas. However, the discussions and debates sometimes occur in various states of confusion.
I lived and worked for three years recently in Guinea, west Africa; I have also worked in several other African countries. I know that Africa is not one place, with agreed views and attitudes. What are people really talking about? Do they mean to focus on sub-Saharan Africa? Do they mean English-speaking Africa (including the eastern and southern countries)? Do they mean north, west, east, or southern Africa? The questions can go on for a long time. The possibilities for beneficial economic or cultural links are not necessarily with that part of Africa (west and central) from which many Caribbean people have their origins. North Africa, though mainly French and Arabic speaking, may offer the right economic focus. It’s noticeable that South Africa, the long time economic power house in the continent, is often sought out as a trade partner. West and central Africa is now largely French-speaking, in terms of official language, and has a multitude of ethnic groups who speak different languages. Most of Africa is Muslim.
The African continent is huge in terms of land mass, and very large in terms of population relative to the Caribbean. If we confine ourselves for the moment to thinking about the English-speaking Caribbean and west and central Africa, we find there are many challenges but also many opportunities. We can try to offer what we have to Africa, but are we ready to take from Africa what it has to offer to us?
On a different aspect, we have to recognize that those who originated from Africa have moved a long way compared to their African brothers and sisters. The Caribbean has managed to enjoy better economic development, and with that a more social structure than many will find in Africa. The Caribbean has experienced more political stability. Poverty in sub-Saharan Africa is probably beyond the comprehension of most people in the English-speaking Caribbean. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have over half of their population living on a few dollars a day and with little access to basic amenities, such as drinking water, electricity, health services). Many of the fears which people in the richer English-speaking Caribbean countries appear to harbour about dealing with their neighbours (not just the poorer ones) are likely to be multiplied many times if they have to deal with African countries. Does the Caribbean really want to associate with Africa? Do most people have a clear idea of what that will mean? There is talk of getting Caricom to approach African leaders tp get their countries to “absorb” as many graduates from the Caribbean as possible (see a letter by Angus Wilkie in Barbados’ The Nation of August 22).
There is a lot to put on the table when it comes to getting closer to Africa. Whatever we in the Caribbean may want to try, we will need to remember that African countries also have their own agendas. If they are looking for financing, markets or suppliers, the English-speaking Caribbean may find it hard to beat out what China, India, Russia, the US, or Europe can offer.
Whether we like it or not, many African countries still find it hard to offer their citizens a good quality standard of living, and given half a chance many seek to emigrate. To deal with this French-speaking west African countries (West African Monetary and Economic Union) have just set up a US$6 billion development package to improve social conditions and help stem this migration (see report by the BBC), hoping that economic conditions will improve so much in the bloc that no one will want to leave. Most (US$ 5 billion) has been pledged by foreign donors (and it’s not clear if this is really new money or funds redirected from other programs).
The absence of direct air links between the two regions has been a source of comment for some time, given that the shortest trans-Atlantic routes are between west Africa and the Caribbean. But are the economic reasons in terms of possible volume of travellers in both directions the only ones that set up barriers to this being a viable venture? I wonder.
None of the above is meant to imply that the Caribbean should not embrace Africa. To do so, is very much a true example of globalization. I strongly believe that Africa needs to be embraced. However, I am offering another voice in the discussion, and ask for others to be clear in their presentations about what they are dealing with. I will listen to and read with much interest what comes from the Barbados conference.