FOR those of us who grew up on the other part of the world, Africa evokes simultaneously mixed feelings of fear and excitement. Fear perhaps due to our reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness depicting a rather savage continent. Excitement perhaps caused by our watching of David Attenborough’s long-running documentary depicting the spectacular natural wonders of Africa.
Well, this is the first time I am stepping on the African continent, and it is on its eastern shore, in Tanzania. I am here to attend the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association conference. I was appointed as a justice of the peace, a quasi-judicial position, in Sabah, Malaysia, and that qualifies me to join the association, of which I am now a council member.
The British Commonwealth is, as perhaps the Brits would put it, a many splendored thing. Composed of the former colonies and current dependencies of what was once known as the British Empire, the Commonwealth brought together all these countries and places with similar British heritage in their administrative, social and sometimes even cultural lineages. The two notable non-members of the Commonwealth are perhaps the United States and Hong Kong which, despite their British colonial past, declined to join for their own separate political reasons.
But over the past four decades or so, the United Kingdom which should have provided the vision and leadership for the Commonwealth as the former colonial master, has instead engrossed itself in joining and incorporating with the European Union project, to the detriment of its Commonwealth commitments. Now that the British voters have wisely chosen to exit the EU, it is perhaps high time that the UK should more fully reengage with its Commonwealth friends, who perhaps share more heritage with the UK than its erstwhile continental EU friends.
Coming back to Tanzania, and just like Malaysia, it was also a federal nation hastily forged by the British upon their colonial departure between the former continental British colony of Tanganyika and the British island protectorate of Zanzibar, hence the name Tanzania. And, like many a Southeast Asian nation, Tanzania is also a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, but it is indeed a miracle that sectarian and communal disputes did not often erupt into violence here.
Upon landing at Dar Es Salaam airport, we were ushered to a VIP lounge, and my first real impression of Africa was formed on one otherwise bland large wall. It has a standing banner calling upon all to stop poaching, a fish tank next to it with gold fish, and just to render the somewhat bizarre picture complete, a flat-screen TV with a politician speaking vociferously with military officers lined up behind him. But as we rode along the main road into town, the scenes melt into what was reminiscent of 1970s and 1980s in Sabah, with somewhat modern buildings interspersed with even more modern ones.
We were met at the hotel by a Chinese friend of mine who had been leading a huge Chinese construction group in Tanzania for many years. He brought us to Oyster Bay, supposedly the poshest neighborhood, and again it reminded me of the beaches of Sabah, dotted with posh bungalows. We later passed through a not-so-posh neighborhood, perhaps yet another testimony to the socio-economic problem common to many developing countries, and that is the wealth gap between the rich and poor.
We visited the construction site of my friend’s large seaside mixed development project, perhaps the largest in Tanzania. Those who can afford to purchase units here are again of course those who have benefited from the recent economic boom of Tanzania. The units look out to a huge public beach, with Tanzanians lazing in their colorful garments on a weekend. Later we were treated to a sumptuous Chinese- style dinner, but prepared with fresh local ingredients, including a gigantic lobster. It would appear that not only Sabah, but even the east African countries are endowed with abundant seafood; they just have to think of ways to value-add to their various produce in order to further lift up their economy.
The opening of the conference was officiated by the vice president of Tanzania, who is a woman. I also learned later that by law 30 percent of Tanzanian parliamentarians (congressional representatives) must be women, making Tanzania perhaps one of the world’s more advanced countries when it comes to gender equality. The children’s choir sang African rhythmic songs, hoisting the portraits of their world-famous founding father, Julius Nyerere.
Tanzania, perhaps akin to many other British Commonwealth countries, is blessed with much potential. I couldn’t help but think that now that the UK has exited the EU, it should perhaps focus on the economic cooperation among the Commonwealth members. For example, a sort of free trade agreement should be on the drawing board, freeing up the economies of the Commonwealth for even higher levels of development.