T.I.A.: This Is Africa
‘T.I.A.’ or ‘This is Africa’ is a phrase that I regularly came across on my travels. It was used to explain the uniquely beautiful, yet uniquely infuriating, cadence of life on the continent. The effortless kindness of local villagers, the majestic breadth of wildlife and the truly celestial sunsets were forever being offset by soul-destroying bureaucracy, exasperating business culture and relentless petitions for money.
During my twenties, I became convinced that the one thing Africa needed was me. It is unclear how I came to this conclusion or why I became wedded to it. I didn’t have a discenable superpower, a qualification of any practical use or even an awareness of the 40,000 charities already working on the continent. Developing countries need industry experts. Genuinely well-meaning but unhelpfully naïve Westerners are generally a second choice. As I hadn’t quite worked this out, I spent five years trying to break into the world of development aid. I knocked on doors in the United Nations, the World Bank and countless Irish charities. Although I was ultimately unsuccessful in my efforts, I could never shake the desire to discover an Africa beyond grass huts and colourful costumes: an Africa where not every child was starving and not every famine was unquestionably caused by drought.
In addition to a flattering account of my adventures across the continent, T.I.A. offers a critique of perception, specifically of how Africa is portrayed in the West. ‘Book I’, which is based in Western Africa, sets the much parodied political leadership of Africa against the political leadership in Ireland. At the turn of the twentieth century, Ireland was being fêted as an economic miracle and as a paragon of free-market economics. Within ten years it had all ended in tears. In fact, it ended so badly that the IMF was soon diverting personnel from some of the world’s most chaotic countries to run affairs in Dublin.
‘Book II’ focuses almost exclusively on the African safari. It takes place in a number of different countries across the southern half of the continent. The reason this particular tourist attraction piqued my interested was because it is, without question, one of the very few universally positive stereotypes of Africa.
Finally, ‘Book III’ touches on the world of development aid and the seemingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy it entails. I travelled specifically to Ethiopia as, perhaps more than any other country, it came to define the work of charities in the public consciousness. Many of the television images of famine victims in the 1980s still have a deep resonance with me. My ambitions were not as lofty as a cost-benefit analysis of emergency relief or the forensic examination of government officials there, but rather just to get a sense of how things actually worked on the ground and to jot down the ideas of a curious mind. Despite the breath of sub-themes, I have tried to keep the narrative broadly similar throughout the three books.
‘T.I.A.’ or ‘This is Africa’ is a phrase that I regularly came across on my travels. It was used to explain the uniquely beautiful, yet uniquely infuriating, cadence of life on the continent. The effortless kindness of local villagers, the majestic breadth of wildlife and the truly celestial sunsets were forever being offset by the soul-destroying bureaucracy, the exasperating business culture and the relentless petitions for money. There are countless books available on Africa and even more available on the topic of development aid. Sadly, none of these speak in particularly glowing terms about the progress that has been made in the last fifty years. Despite the complexity of the theme, many of the texts are very accessible. I would recommend Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo or The Crisis Caravan by Linda Polman to anyone with even the most casual of interests in Africa. Hopefully what makes the following pages unique, is that they are not written by an expert, a pioneering explorer or a battle-hardened journalist. Instead, they are written by someone looking only to get beyond the stereotypes that have come to define Africa.