One of the more interesting things I've picked up in Dakar is the July/September 2002 edition of the BBC's Focus on Africa, the World Service's magazine for the region. It's interesting not only because it contains a bunch of fascinating articles about Africa, but also because I find myself waxing nostalgic over my old job at the BBC, less than a month after I finally managed to escape the shackles of its bureaucracy. OK, it's fair to say that less than a week after landing in Senegal I find that anything remotely British brings on a sharp intake of homesick breath, but to find a BBC-published magazine to be a source of heady nostalgia is a bit of a shock. But there it is; I find myself getting almost tearful at the Bush House address along the top of the letters page, and it's weird.
The contents of the magazine do precious little to make me feel at home, though. Reading about Africa doesn't dispel the feeling that this continent is in a real mess, and judging by the contents of the July/September issue, no news is good news, because pretty much every story manages to highlight another crisis in the making. Madagascar is suffering from a huge dispute between the country's two rival presidents, each claiming that the other shouldn't be there; war-torn Algeria is still in a mess after the country's elections were marred by rioting and a very low turn-out; Lesotho's election results are proving hard to swallow for the losers, and the last time this happened riots left 75 people dead; Liberia is still tearing itself apart in a bloody civil war; Sierra Leone is trying to recover from its own civil war, but it still has a long way to go; Ghana is reeling from the murder of one of its local kings, and the political effects may be wide-reaching; Angola's civil war may be at a cease-fire, but turning this into peace is a huge challenge; Somalia is a disaster area, with the country split into four different parts, each one refusing to recognise the others' claims to the country's rule; elections in Mali have been criticised for being a set-up by the West, though at least there is hope the new president may be able to turn the country around; Nigeria continues its slide into civil unrest and economic oblivion, which could threaten the country's stability; the Democratic Republic of Congo is no nearer to peace as the two sides in its long-running civil war continue to commit awful atrocities on each other; Kenya wonders whether its president will actually retire at the end of this constitutionally last term, or whether he'll change the law to enable him to cling onto power; and the South African Rand is suffering from a 40 per cent drop in its value over the last year, which seriously affects the country's poor as inflation rates go up.
One of the magazine's most tragic stories has nothing to do with regional instability and everything to do with human error. Poor Mozambique recently suffered a train crash that killed about 200 people; the train, made up of both freight and passenger sections, couldn't make it up a hill due to mechanical difficulties, so the driver de-coupled the passenger carriages, wedged rocks under their wheels and drove the freight carriages back down the hill, intending to leave the freight at Muamba station, which the train had just passed. However, the rocks slipped and the passenger carriages started rolling back down the hill, gaining speed all the time, until they smashed into the freight train, which was by this time parked in the station. Two passenger carriages were completely destroyed and buried in the cement that the freight train was carrying, instantly killing those on board.
All these happy stories appear in just one issue of Focus on Africa, and although there are also some upbeat articles about potential solutions to Africa's problems, the emphasis is very much on the problems themselves. Indeed, this issue doesn't even mention the recent unrest in Côte d'Ivoire because it's only just kicked off, but you get the point. As continents go, Africa has a really tough time, and it makes you wonder what the future holds. I get the feeling that, in the short term at least, it will consist of more bad news rather than no news.