Caught between ‘The Ringtone and the Drum’
Images of Africa in the western media are often characterised by famine and conflict. The discussion of poverty in African countries often overlooks the facts of everyday life. A new book The Ringtone and the Drumsets out to change this. Its author, an expert on development policy, presents the fast-changing politics and culture in three of the world’s poorest and least visited countries – Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso.
Interview: Mark Weston, author, The Ringtone and the Drum
Why did you decide to travel around three of the world’s poorest countries?
I’ve worked in international development for quite a long time now, trying to work out what’s gone wrong in the world’s poorest countries. What can be done to help improve the lives of people living there? But although I’d spent time in Africa before, and in Asia on short trips, I felt as that I hadn’t really got under the skin of what it’s like to live in poverty. I wanted to find out what the people who lived in the world’s poorest countries talk about. What do they do every day? How are they adjusting to the onrush of modernity and globalisation that’s transforming so much of the developing world?
In one of the first places you go to, the so-called narco-state Guinea Bissau, you come face-to-face with the drugs trade. It doesn’t really seem to make any attempt to hide itself.
No, not really no. The country has more or less been politically taken over by South American cocaine traffickers who are using it as a staging post on the cocaine route to Europe. They fly in, or ship in consignments of drugs from South America. Then they split them up into smaller packages and smuggle them up through the Sahara. If you go out to the islands of Guinea Bissau, where most of this activity is taking place, it’s obvious what’s going on. You hear a planes coming in at night, that can’t possibly be anything other than narco-traffickers’ planes because there aren’t really any tourists or any other businesses flying to the island. The civilians on the island are quiet about it, they don’t tell you about what’s going on. But then if you go back into Bissau, the capital, you can see all these buildings going up and a bit of a building boom, which is widely thought to be fuelled and funded by drug money. In the cafes and bars in the centre you see all these shady looking people around, quite a lot of who look South American, who are consorting and chatting to local people, with whom they have various types of relationships with.
Your trip to Sierra Leone to visit the diamond mines, it sounds kind of desperate. It seems to really dominant things.
Yes, we went to a diamond mine near the city of Bo, in the east of Sierra Leone. We went with a couple who’d come to Sierra Leone from abroad. The guy was born in Sierra Leone, but had spent most of his life in England, and his wife was Australian. They’d gone to set up their own diamond mine in the rural areas around Bo. When we went there, we first of all had to pay our respects to the chief at the nearby village, who granted them the mining concession. The village was basically empty – all the men, in particular, were out at the diamond mine. That was really their only option in life, it was either diamond mining or emigration. So lots of people, all the time, would ask us for assistance in getting visas to Britain. The main prospects for young people were either working in the mines or getting out of Sierra Leone. There was a survey done in 2010, in which more than half of Sierra Leones said that if there was free migration in the world, they would leave their country behind. That’s partly because the government has neglected all other industries, like farming, tourism, etc. But yes, it’s kind of hollowed out the country.
You visit the grave of Burkina Faso’s former President Thomas Sankara. It sounds rather nondescript, but he is still very much a revered figure.
The grave is basically neglected, it’s in wasteland next to a large rubbish tip, really desolate place. One of the most desolate places I’ve ever been to. There was wind blowing dust around, and rubbish and plastic bags flying around. It’s in a state of advanced disrepair. But among the people of Burkina Faso, as opposed to the politicians who ousted Sankara, who were probably responsible for his death, among the people, he is still a hero. You can get Thomas Sankara t-shirts, I bought a Thomas Sankara t-shirt to show my solidarity. He’s a very popular figure, he’s kind of seen as a great hope for Africa. All be it, a hope that was snuffed out. They see him as a kind of Che Guevara figure.
The title of the book, why is it called, The Ringtone and the Drum?
When I went there, I went there mainly to find out about poverty. But it turned out that poverty wasn’t really a stagnant thing. West Africa is constantly changing. So, on the one hand, you’ve got the lure of the modern world – modernisation, mobile phones, the internet, overseas migration, which some people have done. That’s one side that’s pulling West Africans and attracting West Africans to the modern world. But on the other hand you’ve got the old traditions of Africa – magic, secret societies, respect for the elders and the ancient religions – that are kind of pulling them in the other direction. So, you’ve got the ringtone side, which is the modern side, the globalised, westernised side. Then, on the other you’ve got the drum side, the kind of drum beating in the forest, calling them back to the old ways of Africa. It’s in a state of flux between these two positions, the old traditional position and the modern position. So that was where I got the title from really, the ringtone and the drum, the two extremes. It’s a disorientating phase for many young Africans.