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South Africa’s Economic Hegemonic Imperatives in SADC

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South Africa is the current chair of SADC, and as such its leadership is of paramount interest. South Africa is also the gateway to foreign direct investment to the developing world. The country also holds the key for the success of SADC both at economic and political level. However, since 1994 Pretoria has only intermittently, and reluctantly so, demonstrated leadership in SADC. More than 24 years later, a majority of key institutions for regional integration are largely inefficient and the prospects for human development index are painfully blur. A number of factors were earmarked to comprehend the lethargic state of regional integration and development in SADC. These include the lack of political will amongst member states to integrate for development purposes, various levels of economic development and systems.

Retrospectively, since the achievement of a democratic state, South Africa earmarked Southern Africa as its foremost foreign relations priority. This relationship with the region is a delicate one for Pretoria as it has to fulfill its roles as regional, continental and global player. South Africa assumed the region’s responsibility as to address such issues as closer collaboration and economic integration and utilised the SADC as a vehicle to steer the developmental agenda of the region. Arguably, this has benefited the region since South Africa’s spotlight on the global arena helps intensify the regions potential in many aspects. Notwithstanding the fact that this has not always brought the desired results for the region and beyond. Subsequently, South Africa has, overtime, continued to isolate itself from the region and likewise the region may have also chose to isolate South Africa in its own dealings.  South Africa acceded to the SADC Treaty on 29 August 1994 at the Heads of States Summit in Gaborone, Botswana. This accession was approved by the Senate and National Assembly in September 1994.After joining SADC South Africa was given a sector responsibility for finance, investment and health. This was a decision that was formed by South Africa’s comparative advantage in this area. It is undeniable that South Africa is the most developed and advanced economy in SADC and on the continent of Africa. This position cannot be ignored if the possibility of regional integration is prioritized on the region and the continent itself. For this reason, it is perhaps essential to earmark the owing to its economic strength South Africa also holds the capacity to make or break regional integration within the SADC and the continent. Moreover South Africa can be described as the economic hub of the region.

Consequently, South Africa is often confronted with a crisis of trying to balance its domestic, regional and global interests especially with the rise of transnational cooperation’s including membership into the BRICS group of countries. Evidently, in the process the probability of conflict of interest is inevitable. On the other hand, the success of the SADC unequivocally rely on South Africa’s will to support and develop it as envisaged. SADC established the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan as a thorough guide to intensify integration. According to the 15 year plan, the key milestone are to reach a Free Trade area in 2008, Customs Union in 2010, Common Market in 2015, Monetary Union in 2016 and regional currency in 2018. The Regional Indicative Strategic Developmental Plan (RISDP) remains the strongest indicator of SADC’s desire for deeper integration with an objective of achieving a level of intra-regional unrestricted flow of goods, services and investment. The RISDP cannot be implemented without the support of the biggest economy of the region. SADC needs South Africa but the fear is that the same cannot be said of South Africa needing SADC.

According to Alde and Pere, South Africa’s biggest export market is SADC. This is often overlooked when surveying South Africa’s trade figures, the reason being that a great portion of South Africa’s exports to other countries are concealed within SACU. Evidently, the relevance of the SADC market to South Africa should not be underestimated. Since 1994 the South African government has regarded the Southern African region as the foremost priority of its foreign relations. To exemplify the prominence attached to this region, the first foreign policy document adopted by its democratic government was in fact a “Framework for Co-operation in Southern Africa” endorsed by Cabinet in August 1996. In terms of this “Framework”, the vision for the Southern African region is one of the highest possible degree of economic cooperation, mutual assistance where necessary and joint planning of regional development initiative, leading to integration consistent with socio-economic, environmental and political realities.

South Africa has taken a leading role in the region to address such issues as robust cooperation and economic integration. These include the establishment of a free trade area within the region, the development of basic infrastructure, the development of human resources and the creation of the necessary capacity to drive this complicated process forward, as well as the urgent need for peace, democracy and good governance to be established throughout the region. Nevertheless, history has proven that South Africa bullies its fellow member states within the region. South Africa opts to wield its economic power when negotiating with partners in both SACU and SADC. This oversight plays itself out in how some South African government officials view their regional partners. For example in response to questions about the consequences of the negative impact that an EU/SA Free Trade Agreement would have on its SACU member states. Former Director of Regional Economic Organisations within the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs Willem Bosman maintained that, there is a need for a shock treatment that is necessary to fellow SACU member states. Bosman further maintained that SACU members are on their own, as South Africa would no longer provide for the 50% of their budget….”now you will have to tax your own people; you also have to work according to the structures of a free independent country”. The irony of this statement is that even if the new SACU agreement replaced the old agreement in 2002, SACU largely remains an apartheid-created relic, designed to ensure that South Africa would have a captive market for its agricultural and non-international competitive manufactured products. This economic dependency of the SACU states on South Africa was “part of a strategy to ensure that South Africa’s economic hegemony in Africa. If SACU states experienced economic deterioration as a result of the EU/SA Free Trade Agreement, who will buy South Africa’s non-international competitive manufactured products? By placing integration at the global level a priority, South Africa has always risked national and regional economic destabilization.

South African’s global integration agenda

In the interest, for many, South Africa has an urgent need to further integrate its economy into the world economy. This could also be at the expense of its SADC counterparts. Nevertheless, for South Africa to attract good foreign direct investment, therefore there’s an urgent need for South Africa be seen as an environment of peace and tranquility not just in South Africa but the region. Many global players who take interest in investing in Africa perceive South Africa as the gate way.  Nonetheless unfamiliar circumstances arise from the role played by external partners in the region, especially the EU and the USA. In respect of the EU, the outcomes of the Economic Partnership Agreements negotiations will fundamentally alter the peace and nature of regional integration in Africa. Other global players refuse to be side-lined. This was illustrated by the recent introduction of the China-Africa office in South Africa in March 2008. South Africa has to assume leadership in ensuring that the Zimbabwean problems are resolved since regional peace is important for the national economy of South Africa. Nonetheless, many have questioned South African former President Thabo Mbeki’s impartiality in the process. What this means is that there has to be a balance of interest between national, regional and global integration aspirations for South Africa.

Moreover, there are ways in which South Africa has attempted to integrate its economy in the world economy at the expense of its regional counterparts. It is also noteworthy to point out that this was inevitable in light of long term planning. The EU/SA TDCA agreement stabling a free trade areas demonstrate this phenomenon. South Africa become a signatory to this trade agreement with full knowledge that it would bare devastating impact on both the members of SACU and SADC. In light of the SACU, the agreement was endorsed without consultation without consultation with the other BLNS SACU member states. This was a precise disregard of the SACU Treaty that stipulates that such agreements must be approved by all SACU members. By acting unilateral, it is clear that South Africa is trying to monopolise/maximize these economic benefits for itself at the expense of the other members.

In light of SADC, the fear of EU goods flooding the regional market has been duly noted. This is because when EU goods have entered South Africa, it becomes relatively easy to have them anywhere else within the SADC region and Africa at large.  Evidently, this has undermined the agricultural and industrial sectors. A number of SADC states launched a complained that South Africa only became serious about completing the negotiations for the SADC FTA when it had completed negotiations with the EU. However, a few South African trade officials felt that the EU/SA FTA allowed them to become more integrated into the world economy, notwithstanding the fact that the consequences could also be severe for South Africa’s own economy.

A look at the TDCA agreement will show that South Africa has divided attention, with more emphasis place on the EU and not the SADC region. This agreement follows several aspects; strengthening dialogue between the parties, supporting South Africa in its economic and social transition processes, promoting regional cooperation and the country’s economic integration in Southern Africa and in the world economy, and expanding and liberalizing trade in goods, services and capital between the parties. The amount of loss of revenue is very high since SACU and SADC states will not be able to levy duties on the EU products. “Based on respect for democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law, the Agreement establishes a regular political dialogue on subjects of common interest, both at bilateral and regional level (within the framework of the EU’s dialogue with the countries of Southern Africa and with the group of the African Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. The duration of the agreement is unspecified, but provision is made for its revision every five years of the date of its entry into force in order to consider possible amendments. The agreement covers a number of areas and includes a future developments clause making it possible to widen the field of cooperation”.

Concluding remarks

South Africa’s dominance in southern Africa, most prolific in the economic sphere, remains uncontested. South Africa accounts for about 60% of SADC’s total trade and about 70% of the regions GDP. The country is also within the region, the most diversified economy and thus critical to SADC’s drive towards developmental regionalism. Nevertheless, it is also true that a relationship of interdependence binds South Africa to the region. Moreover, in varying degrees, the economies of other SADC member states also benefit from employment opportunities, skills transfer, tax revenues and global linkages as a result of the business activities of South Africa firms.

Charles Matseke studied his Masters in International Relations and Foreign Policy at the SARChI: Chair for African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg. He is currentlyProgram Manager for Africa-China in International Forums at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg. His main areas of focus are developmental policy and developmental foreign policy. He has published on these areas in various platforms.

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Review: As Coronavirus Rise Past Three million, Africa Hopes for Vaccine

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Migrant women and their children quarantine at a site in Niamey, Niger. © UNICEF/Juan Haro

With its large population and fragile health systems, Africa has recorded more than three million Covid-19 cases, still less deadly as compared to other regions in the world, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). According to Africa CDC, Africa’s coronavirus tally was 3,021,769 as of January 10. The death toll was 72,121 and the number of recoveries was 2,450,492. The biggest number of coronavirus cases were reported from South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, and Ethiopia.

South Africa, with more than 1.2 million reported cases, including 32,824 deaths, accounts for more than 30% of the total for the continent of 54 countries and 1.3 billion people. The high proportion of cases identified in South Africa, were attributed to more tests carried out than many other African countries.

African countries are expecting to get medical equipment, most especially vaccine, to help them out of the pandemic. These they expect from external sources. During January 4-9, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid official visits to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Botswana and Seychelles. Wang Yi emphasized that China is willing to deepen mutually beneficial cooperation in diverse spheres with Africa. For example, China’s efforts to create a new image in Africa through China-European Union Cooperation in vaccine.

Both China and the EU vow to work as a global collaboration under the World Health Organization in terms of accelerating the development and manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines, and assuring fair and equitable access for every country in the world. It’s about making the vaccine a global public good.

Last December, during his annual media conference, President Vladimir Putin made it known that Russia’s readiness to help foreign countries including Africa. With regard to cooperation with other countries, it would boost the technological capabilities, enterprises to produce the vaccine, foreign countries would invest their own money into expanding their production capacities and purchasing the corresponding equipment, he explained.

Foreign countries would be investing in these projects: the enlargement of production facilities and the purchase of equipment. “As for cooperation with foreign countries: nothing is stopping us from manufacturing vaccine components at facilities in other countries precisely because we need time to enhance technological capacities of our vaccine manufacturing enterprises. This does not hinder vaccination in the Russian Federation in any way,” Putin said.

According to January report from the Tass News Agency, the Russian Direct Investment Fund has only registered the first Russian vaccine Sputnik V in Africa. “Russian Direct Investment Fund announces the first registration of Sputnik V in Africa. Ministry of Pharmaceutical Industry of Algeria registered Sputnik V on January 10th,” as follows from a post on their official Twitter account.

According to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the registration was done under the accelerated Emergency Use Authorization procedure. This procedure was also used to register this vaccine in Argentina, Bolivia, and Serbia. The Fund said that supplies to Algeria would be possible thanks to its international partners in India, China, South Korea and other countries.

Writing under the headline “Africa’s Road to Recovery in 2021 Is a Fresh Start” published originally by Chatham House, Dr Alex Vines, the Director for the Africa Program at Chatham House, said many African countries would be much more seriously affected by the socioeconomic consequences of the global economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic. Even before Covid-19 hit, an increasing number of African countries were indebted and financially stressed.

He wrote that African debt would become a greater global concern in 2021 as many African states remain the world’s poorest and most fragile and have been hard hit by the economic and financial costs imposed by the pandemic.

In his analysis, Dr Vines further pointed out that 2021 will also see increased geopolitical rivalry for influence in Africa. This will include competition over generosity, ranging from positioning over debt cancellation to providing Covid-19 vaccines. China has its Sinopharm vaccine and has already signed up to Covax, the international initiative aimed at ensuring equitable global access. The Russians have their Sputnik V vaccine, the UK has its AstraZeneca and University of Oxford vaccine, and the US the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech (with Germany) vaccines.

Reports from Quartz also said Africa appears not part of the supply priorities of the Pharmaceutical companies producing the foremost Covid-19 vaccines. While Pfizer-BioNTech has offered to supply just 50 million Covid-19 vaccines to Africa starting from March to the end of this year, Moderna and AstraZeneca have not yet allocated supplies for Africa. AstraZeneca directed the African Union (AU) to negotiate with the Serum Institute of India for its vaccine to see if they can get a deal. Serum Institute of India has earlier obtained the license to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Quartz report said most African countries mainly relied on the COVAX co-financing public-private facility backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to enable rapid and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for lower income countries. The facility promised access to vaccines for up to 20% of participating countries’ population with an initial supply beginning in the first quarter of the year to immunize 3% of their population. However, COVAX is underfunded, and these countries must look for other avenues to access more doses to vaccinate the 50% of their population in order to reach immunity.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, several countries around the world have been making efforts to facilitate local vaccine development, clinical trials, and some had made upfront payments for vaccines to encourage early production. Outside of South Africa, most African economies have played too little or no role at all in the development of Covid-19 vaccines and had likewise made little or effort to secure vaccines while other economies around the world were doing so.

For instance, a globally respected genomic and infectious disease laboratory in Nigeria announced the development of a Covid-19 vaccine in September that is 90% effective against the virus in the preclinical trial but it has not been able to carry out clinical trials due to lack of support and funding.

While Kenya recently announced that through the COVAX facility, it ordered 24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with supply expected to start arriving in the second week of next month, several African countries are opting for vaccines from India, Russia, and China. This is despite skepticism about the vaccines from Russia and China in particular. Both countries rolled out their vaccines without phase 3 clinical trial results that confirm the vaccine effectiveness.

South Africa said it made a deal with Serum Institute India and will be getting 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine for its health workers starting this month. The country, which is going is also in talks with Russia and China to procure vaccines. Currently, Guinea is testing the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V and has ordered 2 million doses.

Morocco has ordered 65 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China, and AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute India. Egypt plans to buy 40 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, has already received 50,000 doses of the vaccine in December, and expecting another 50,000 in the second or third week of this month when vaccination will commence. Nigeria says vaccine access was in its discussions this week with the Chinese foreign minister during his visit to the county, according to the report from Quartz.

Besides the fact that Africa has registered its three million cases, Africa still behind the United States and European countries, and Asian countries such as China and India when it comes to the Covid-19 outbreak. For many African countries, it is still the time to reflect on African countries’ responses to Covid-19. Although it has abundant resources, Africa remains the world’s poorest and least developed continent, and worse with poor development policies. It is time to prioritize and focus on sustainable development.

Significantly, the global pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in Africa’s health system, adversely affected its economic sectors, it is therefore necessary for African leaders, the African Union (AU), regional organizations and African partners be reminded of issues relating to sustainable development and integration. It sets as a reminder to highlight and prioritize the significant tasks set out by the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

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China’s Diplomacy in Africa: Being a civilian great power

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Authors: Xu Guoying & Chen Yiling*

During January 4-9, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid official visits to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Botswana and Seychelles. According to the media reports, the visits is in line with China’s 30-year tradition of choosing Africa as the destination of all Chinese foreign ministers’ first overseas visit each year and demonstrated China’s close attention to its ties with African countries as well as its firm friendship with African people.

Noting the year 2021 marks the last year for the implementation of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Beijing Action Plan (2019-21), FM Wang’s visits aimed to deepen coordination and communication with the African side to cement the important consensuses and facilitate economic recovery in African countries while fighting the virus. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the close cooperation between China and Africa in fighting the pandemic has indicated the two sides’ firm determination to step up relationship with each other. This is more necessary because the traditional friendship between China and Africa would have reached new heights in the post-pandemic era while they also expected to exchange views on a new round of forum during this visit.

There is no doubt that China’s diplomacy has always adhered to the principle that all countries, large or small, are equal and that has advocated multilateralism, opposed power politics, promoted general democratization in international relations, and supported the United Nations to play its due role in international affairs. To that end, China needs the consensus and diplomatic supports from the countries in the Third World, particularly the African states. Given this, Chinese FM Wang reiterate that big countries should take the lead in abiding by the basic norms of international relations, not interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, helping small and medium-sized developing countries, and assuming their international responsibilities in dealing with climate change and promoting sustainable development. Today, as the largest developing country, China is willing to fulfill its international obligations since its development is a growing force for peace, justice, and other developing countries as equal members of the international community.

This is not a lip-service but a solemn promise to play a more active role in international affairs and is willing to work with the country to safeguard world peace, stability, and prosperity. As a matter of fact, most states of Africa have admitted that China has adhered to the principle of equality between large and small countries, and made all the efforts to safeguard the interests of small and medium-sized countries and developing countries. Morally and practically, China has always stood with developing countries in international affairs. During his trip to Africa, Wang praised China’s close ties with the African states like the important members of the international community where all the members should treat each other as equals and achieve fruitful results in practical cooperation.

It is obvious that the leaders of the African states welcomed FM Wang’s visit and vowed to continue to support Beijing on the issues concerning China’s core interests, and inclusive of taking the opportunity of jointly building the Belt and Road and implementing the outcomes of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Beijing Summit with the view to taking mutual cooperation to a new level and building a community with a shared future for both sides in light of the economic and social development needs of the African people. Considering the huge African population and rich natural resources, China is willing to deepen mutually beneficial cooperation with Africa in many traditional and new areas such as green environmental protection and blue ocean economics. Meanwhile, China fully understands the urgent desire of the African states to cope with climate change. The two sides agreed to sign the implementation agreement on the construction of low-carbon demonstration zones in South-South cooperation.

Since China’s relationship with Africa has been never exclusive, it calls on the cooperative programs with all the countries, in particular the European Union. For example, China’s efforts to create a new image in Africa through China-EU Cooperation in vaccine. This is the good chance for both sides because they all want to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control and then it’s going to require a major, global effort to do so. As a matter of fact, China has reiterated that the virus knows no borders and has no interest in the nationality of its victims. As a result, it will overcome all barriers if we do not work together to counter it. In the face of the virus, we are without doubt a global community. But the key question is: Are we able to act like one? The answer is yes, but China and the EU need to work together to play a pivotal role in dealing with what is called the political, social, and ethical issue. It requires that political leaders manage to explain convincingly that it is advantageous for all of us if as a first step some people are vaccinated in all countries instead of all people in some countries?

Both China and the EU vow to work as a global collaboration under the World Health Organization in terms of accelerating the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and assuring fair and equitable access for every country in the world. It’s about making the vaccine a global public good. This should be in Chinese and Europe’s interests too. There is a consensus between China and the EU that nurses in African countries be vaccinated as a first step, and soonest—needs a big PR push.

There’s little doubt that most Europeans want the vaccine as soon as possible. But the EU should also move fast to vaccinate especially doctors and nurses in as many affected and vulnerable African countries as possible. There are several compelling reasons to do this. First is the destructive nature of the virus. The longer it flourishes, the greater the chance of it mutating in ways that make it even more deadly, contagious, or just difficult to vaccinate against. Getting it rolled out quickly across Africa is crucial. Second, a World Bank study in last April showed that if the EU and European governments are really serious about their soft power, this is the time to share the vaccine in a way that equals to the global influence of China as it has already been sending vaccine for trials in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

Now as for China’s relations with Africa, where it has built huge infrastructure projects on the back of loans to several countries and is extracting much-needed raw materials, the Chinese leadership has gone on the offensive. In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping told a meeting of African leaders that “African countries will be among the first to benefit” from a coronavirus vaccine, once its development and deployment is completed in China. Moreover, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has pledged that Beijing would extend $11 billion (€9 billion) in loans for vaccines to Latin American and Caribbean countries. In light of this, China and the EU should cooperate with each other in Africa rather than excluding the other side. For sure, all the more reason for China and the EU to seize the opportunity to boost their mutual soft power with a combination of philanthropy and a big dose of self-interest.

To that end, China has reiterated that it is not a military threat to the status quo since it has reaffirmed the defensive nature of its national defense policy as Chinese top legislative body adopted new revisions to the National Defense Law, renewing tasks and goals as well as cementing policies. Accordingly, it is quite sure that China will be more like to act as a civilian great power which is compatible with the goal of the European Union. Considering this, China and the EU would be able to continue their cooperative partners in trade and economics, transparent and open competitors in high technologies and possibly the systematic rivals.

*Chen Yiling, MA, a research fellow at the Center for International Relations, SIPA, Jilin University

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Somalia: My Nostalgic, Childhood Visit to Grandma’s Village

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At twelve noon, the old man whispers to himself as he counts his prayers with a rosary. He strokes his goatee beard, streaked with grey. He hitches up his sarong and sits under a shady tree on a mat made from a deerskin. On the mountains behind him, I see a mirage as the sun bakes the scenery. He is a popular imam among the villagers. They hold him in great reverence throughout the village, which is located twenty miles west of Erigavo, Somalia.

I see my grandma sharpening a big knife. For the past three months, this knife has been handy for my grandma. She uses it for countless purposes, from cutting fresh little sticks off the acacia trees to slaughtering animals for a feast. She chews on the tip of one of those sticks to make it soft enough to brush her teeth. I watch the rolling eyes of this restrained ram as its ears wiggle and listen to the clatter of the sharpening. Two women lay the ram on its back, one holds the front legs, and the other holds the rear ones, and grandma walks calmly towards the ram, grabs the chin, presses the head down and slits the throat, and blood gushes out on the steep ground and runs down to the outsole of her shoes. The ram’s eyes do not move now, and they stare at the sky, motionless.

This is Ismael. He seems to have done enough physical exercise, not in an urban gym, but by tending the camels, drinking camel milk, and running around in the bush from dawn to dusk. His bones are thick, and his muscles are strong. He is a real nomad and can walk miles and miles without breaking a sweat. Look at me. I’m a city boy who barely walks a mile a day. And grandma sends me to fetch firewood with this boy. Look at him. He walks well, but to me, his steps are so fast. I have to keep up with his unusual pace where he zigzags, jumps over thorny cactuses, changes direction unexpectedly, and avoids clear paths. As I chase him, I cough because of the dust strewn in my face by his stamping feet. Sandy grains are in my eyes and my vision is blurry. It takes us five miles to arrive at a place where firewood abound. I sit to rest, panting, cleaning my teary eyes with a handkerchief. Not only does he scale a tree like a monkey, he gathers some firewood, breaking every dry branch there with the swift blows of his axe and tossing it down. For him, a village life is a walk in the park.

I tie a firewood load into a bunch and heave it to my back. The Ismael’s load is three times bigger than mine. He walks swiftly and disappears from view with a lightning speed. With resting intervals, I reach home forty minutes later than him, with my feet blistering and my nose bleeding slightly. I fling the firewood away from my back to the ground and descend to a sitting position. I pull off my sturdy boots, and something smell ammonia.

The women start a three-stone fires in three different spots, and the flames lick the enormous cooking pots whose outer form dark and hardened flakes from years of use. I sit there wreathing in a haze of clouds of smoke, trying to strike up a conversation with this girl in her teen years.

 “How can you guys cook all this meat without messing up something in the process?” I dub my nose.

“What makes you think we will cook all the meat?” she swaggers past me, putting more firewood into the fire.

“I’m just asking,” tears roll down from my eyes.

         “Please don’t trip,” she says as I get up suddenly.

“What?,” I step back, stumbling over a head.

“That belongs to the second ram,” she explains. “I am Sophia, by the way.”

“I’m Ahmed,” I glance at the ram head, freaked.

Two muscled men dig a square hole in the ground and use it as an underground oven to cook lamb stuffed with rice. Look at them. They are in a perfect shape. They fight off lions and hyenas at night when these predatory carnivores attack the herds, Ismael tells me. One of them is wearing an eye patch. His name is Hussein. His back has scars that resemble the shape of the African continent, his left fingers suffer from physical deformity. The other man has a silky dress and a black shirt on. He wiggles the white-faced Seiko watch on his wrist into place, checking the time repeatedly as he flips the meat. He yawns and I glimpse that he is missing all his lateral incisors. His name is Hassan, and he is in love with the imam’s daughter. Her name is Amina. Despite Hassan’s declared love, Amina was not forthcoming with being in love with Hassan.

“How did he afford that watch?” I ask curiously.

“He sold a bull last year to buy that watch and a new wardrobe,” Ismael answers.

“By the way, one day Amina told him to remove all his lateral incisors to prove his love,” he adds.

“Wow, poor man!” I yell softly.

“Probably, she said that jokingly,” Ismael smiles.

“Love is a strange thing,” I check my broken shoelaces.

“You know nothing about love,” he raises his voice. “You are barely sixteen.”

“You know more than me about how love works in this village,” I blow my nose.

“Anyway, the wedding is tonight, and I am two years older than you,” he puts peanuts into his mouth.

“ Whatever,” my eyes settle on a Billy goat flirting with a goat.

My mouth waters with the delicious sight of the meat and the rice, readied on those big stainless still plates. The women pour the soup into several glass jars as well. Sophia hands me the largest plate for the imam. As I walk towards the tree, I see six meditative men with the imam. Each man is sitting on his own deer-skin mat and holds a rosary. My hands shake with the weight which propelled me to put the plate hastily in front of the closest man, the imam. He opens his eyes, nodding. Then, I hear thuds under the nose of each man. I feel amazed at the synchronization of the women for bringing the brimming plates and placing them down at the same time. And the rest of the food, from tropical fruits to freshly squeezed juices, keeps traveling on its way to the tree as if carried by ant colonies.

At nine o’clock pm, everyone gets engrossed in the wedding’s climax. The groom and the bride wear exquisite traditional dresses. Sophia gazes at me, blushing, and I gaze back at her, feigning shyness. I virtualize the two of us in those dresses. Maybe she envisages that too. Many villagers attend the event and enjoy the feast. Out of the blue, a lion purrs in midair and attacks the imam. Hussein lifts his spear and hurls it at the beast, killing it. The imam sustains slight injuries. Hussein becomes the hero of the night, takes off his shirt in celebration with his continent-shaped scars showing.

 I am in a school uniform, heading to the kitchen for breakfast. It is a beautiful morning. After a few months in the village, everything looks tidier than the village, and my sense of smell detects the difference. All the city scents lingering in the air are rich and exotic in a novel way. The people are gentler and more polite. But I remember the innocence and lack of political correctness of the village people. Unlike the city people who seem to harbor grudges, they get everything off their chest. And in my mind’s eye, I see Sophia’s face as she waives at me goodbye. I look forward to a second visit next year when school is closed.

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