I could not have imagined a more surreal – and contrasting – first two weeks in Maputo. (As a parenthesis, I never really imagined myself living in Maputo, having traveled through frequently on my way to Niassa. And I definitely never imagined myself blogging from Maputo. But I can’t help myself.)
Last week, at the last-minute invite of my Boss/Patron, I found myself in an “academic” conference on the life of founding father Samora Machel. It was an essentially a boys club – there was one female speaker the whole day.
The pinnacle of the day was a panel advertised to include Museveni (no-show), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambian founding father) and Mugabe.
We arrived late and lingered around, and lo and behold these gentlemen passed within what I tweeted was “spitting distance”. As we went into the conference center, as I had no name tag I expected to be asked to show ID and open my bag. I even prepared to be grilled about why I had permission to attend. I approached the cops, standing behind a machine like those at the airport that scans bags. They indifferently waved me on. I was confused – go through the metal detector? I signaled. No, just go straight in, they said. And so I entered the conference building with numerous ministers and heads of state with a massive backpack which could have been filled with a cream pie – or worse.
Kenneth Kaunda spoke first with no notes, chiding Malema and saying “two wrongs do not make a right” but then saying that Mugabe (on the other side of the panel) was an angel. He was very soft spoken and had a grandfatherly like quality. Then, it was Mugabe’s turn. He had a personal security guard, dressed in full, formal military garb, bring him what appeared to be a very long written speech. Mugabe stood up firmly, adopting a “teacher-like” pose.
He started well, and I must say, more “on target” than KK. He described how he met Samora, and how things developed in the Frontline Group. He seemed lucid, in control, and dare I say, statesmenlike.
Then, about 20 minutes in, he started fiddling with the paper, his prepared speech. It was a bit like watching a train rock on the rails before it careened off. He discarded the paper, to the delight of the audience.
What followed can only be described as a post-liberation “Twilight Zone” where Mugabe stirred up the audience railing against NATO imperialism and defending the “right to life” of the Gaddafi family. What was not so incredible was the irony of what he was saying – but the audience’s seemingly adoring reaction. The audience was full of ruling party VIPs, including the President. But it was also full of students.
These young people did not seem at all disturbed by the idea of being ruled by someone who only departs by “falling out of the chair”. They did not seemed disturbed by such blatant hypocrisy and cynicism, which was actually audible in his voice.
This was a black and white TV show designed to scare, delight and entertain.
In great contrast with this, I saw this week by Hans Rosling, a Doctor turned data visualization guru and top “global thinker”. Rosling did not fight a war of liberation, but he did spend his life working on disease and contributing to African medical research capacity.
He gave a very personal, warm, and humorous presentation to the University of Eduardo Mondlane’s Medical School – also provocative, but in an entirely fresh and creative way. In really natural, charming Portuguese.
Rosling, like Mugabe, came in contact with the Mozambican liberation struggle in the early 1970s. He told the story of how, as a 19 year old medical student in Uppsala, Sweden, he met Eduardo Mondlane. He was supposed to gather students for a reception for the revolutionary, but Rosling was only able to interest 8 people. The young Rosling was eager to hear stories of the liberation struggle and to contribute to it, but he said that Mondlane told them to focus on the post-independence period. There was no doubt that Mozambique would liberate itself – and Portugal in the process – but that the hardest part would be afterwards.
Rosling never forgot this, and signed up as soon as he finished Med school to work as a District Health Officer in Nacala.
It was his comparison of his home district in Sweden – roughly the same size and population – with Nacala that really struck a chord. He arrived and it dawned on him “Now I have to do the work of 300 doctors”.
Two zeros separated the number of patients per doctor between Sweden and Mozambique: “one hundred times the work, with one percent of the resources. I spent my whole life trying to understand these zeros”.
Rosling was just about dive into his famous Gapminder tool to show how infant mortality was slowly dropping in Mozambique when the electricity cut out at the Medical School.
In the darkness in the front row sat the Rector of the University, Director of the Med School, and the Swedish Ambassador. (I asked myself how the Med School preserved its essential functions like refrigeration at times like this.) We were suddenly only illuminated by the screen of his laptop (and mine).
Rosling didn’t miss a beat, he told the story of his research with a Mozambican team in 1981 which led to identification of a disease called konzo – and the role of ethnography and social anthropology in discovering the crucial element was food consumption.
He also used the opportunity to mention how electricity can save lives. He said, “Only when you have attended to a family in a hut at night with a child suffering from diaherrea do you know what a life or death difference electricity can make.”
This talk too could have jumped the rails, as Rosling had come to challenge the Med students to think in structural terms, to challenge them to think in decades. He needed the electricity to do this with his Gapminder tool.
It came back just in time. Rosling then showed the development trajectories of a number of countries, undoing the myth about two kinds of countries “developing” and “developed”. (Those who have seen his Youtube presentations will be familiar with this.)
What was most fascinating from my point of view was Rosling insistence that tomorrow’s “world” (not emerging world, simply the world) will be the 8 billion people living mostly in Africa and Asia. That Europe and North America will only constitute 1 billion of a total 9 billion – it will be the “old West”. He joked that if even George W Bush came to understand this – we can too.
Rosling’s most provocative image was not actually Gapminder chart – it was a map of this world – and his assertion that Nacala, the northern port of Mozambique is in essence a central point between Africa and Asia. I confess, for me, the penny dropped only at this moment. The strategic importance of Nacala is hard to overestimate.
But for Rosling, this only raises the stakes – he pushed the audience to look beyond vaccination systems and health interventions. He talked of the importance of infrastructure, of investing in small-holder agriculture to improve public health.
What he proposes is a dynamic and colorful envisioning the future. (Something absent in the spooky Frontline Twilight Zone.) If we do not have the freedom, the creativity and the tools to do so, we must simply learn them, go in search of them, or create them ourselves.