The Inadvertent Curse Of Abundant Natural Resources (III)

Mon, 22 Nov 2010 Source: Baidoo, Philip Kobina

Transportation is an indispensable part in the development of any vibrant and sophisticated economy. We saw in the first part of this series how the train transformed America from an agrarian economy into an industrial colossus within a few decades of the commercialisation of the technology. The complex road network system that, in places like Britain, leads to every home is essentially a modern phenomenon that many take for granted. Before the advent of the renaissance, i.e. the Middle Ages, which has been our point of reference, it was the caravan, the sea routes and rivers that dominated transportation. And the history of the world has been shaped by the countless dramas that were played on these routes. Evidently, it’s not by chance that most of the major cities of the world that dates back to centuries developed along sea routes, on rivers, caravan routes or huge inland water bodies, like London on the Thames, New York on the Hudson, Paris on the Seine. Where as cities like Chicago developed on lake Michigan and Odessa on the Black Sea and many more.

Though, Africa has numerous rivers like the Nile, the Zambezi, which carries more water than most rivers in the world; on the other hand, with the exception of the Nile, which has produced a city like Cairo and the first documented human civilisation, most of them are not navigable. For instance, the Volta River only became navigable for a considerable part of its length after the construction of the Akosombo Dam that created the enormous Volta Lake. The simple fact is African riverbeds sit more than a 1000 feet above sea level and therefore the journey to the sea is very swift and treacherous. It goes through a lot of rapids and fall and narrow gorges that are impassable. Even those that are navigable are only possible for a minuscule fraction of their length. Besides, during the dry season the rivers are starved of water because there are no mountain ranges with snow top that melts to feed them, like the European rivers, and the navigable parts shrink further. To that extent, transportation was heavily dependent on human labour limited to how much the human strength can endure. As a result, trade was confined to subsistence and large-scale trade, which produce the wealth of nations, was synonymous with impossibility. In effect large-scale projects could not be financed like the building of harbours, large ocean going vessels even if we had the technology to have a crack at them.

Apart from the problems with African rivers, the sea routes had its own incredible bottlenecks. Though Africa is more than twice the size of Europe, besides the shallowness of its continental shelf, the coastline is much shorter than Europe. The reason being that the European coastline has got many twist and turns with jagged lands sticking out further into the surrounding seas, like the Italian peninsula, producing numerous natural harbours serving as a protection from the rough seas that provides conducive environment for the building of large ocean going fleets – a prerequisite for voluminous international trade.

A well-developed transportation system facilitates not only trade but also the crisscrossing of cultures and ideas, which turns to develop healthy competition weeding out outmoded cultures and ideas. In effect the main seaports and river ports that flourished along the various trade routes inevitably became hubs for the exchange of ideas. For example, Voltaire picked up the ideas of Isaac Newton and John Locke when he was exiled in London and made them shine bright like the midday Sun when he went back to Paris. With all this limiting factors our mass transportation was put on hold until the advent of the railway and the internal combustion engine. It is clear that though we have the physical natural endowment, unfortunately it does not lend itself for use with rudimentary technology. And the development of every society starts on elementary technology and build on to sophistication.

Also, certain natural events and unsolicited human machinations, sometimes, work together to shape the destiny of a people. For example, the events leading to the election of Adolf Hitler began with the defeat of the Germans in the Great War. Perhaps, that alone would not have produced Hitler. But then came the 1929 stock market crush in America, which brought on the Great Depression - a world wide economic meltdown, incomparable in the economic history of the world that eventually paved the way for Hitler. Without the economic depression there was no way the Germans would have voted for him. In desperate situations people turn to cling on to a straw. And Germany beaten to a pulp by the treaty of Versailles needed a saviour to salvage them from the noose of the British and they got their straw – Hitler who changed the world irrevocably.

Similarly unforeseen events like the Black Death changed the face of Europe morally, spiritually and intellectually to an immeasurable degree. It was an epidemic, which according to most reliable historians wiped out about a third of the whole of Europe’s population. And in some cases certain towns and villages lost more than half of its inhabitants. It was a continental wide pandemic that transformed entirely the arrangement on the chessboard. It was such a terrifying experience that even a minister administering the last rights might drop dead before the patient does. Nobody was spared, not even the priests, who were seen as God’s representative on earth at the time. These were group of people who kept telling the masses purer than thou that anything that went wrong in their lives were due to their sinful life. And here they were, a privileged class, who were suppose to have direct communication with God and yet could not negotiate a deal with the Lord to bring a quick end to the epidemic and rather were themselves dropping like flies. The psychological damage was enormous and for those that survived it made them strong and the mantra was not again.

However, the Pandora box had been opened. It left both positive and negative legacies. It is possible that the seed of the death of Christianity in Europe was planted around this period. The respect that the people had for the clergy went to the grave with the dead. For the atheist the Black Death couldn’t have come at a better time. It gave them the power to look into the eyes of their adversaries reinforcing their belief in materialism and the notion of a puppeteering God was dealt a fatal blow that took centuries for the coffin to be delivered. New ways of thinking surged and taboos were broken with impunity. The wings of superstitious ideas were clipped and held under lock and keys. It gave the thinkers of the age, and the subsequent ones, the courage to challenge the superstition that had shaped their thinking processes for millennia. Once the superstitious chord had been broken the hidden ocean of knowledge, which hitherto was closed to them was opened courtesy of pure reasoning. From the shadows emerged giants like Newton, Leibniz, Robert Boyle, Descartes, Galileo Francis Bacon and many more – reshaping and changing Europe beyond recognition.

Unfortunately, our culture is still saturated with superstition like the Europeans before the advent of modern science and continues to stifle our progress. The ability to ask why is a powerful tool that liberates the mind on a journey to the land of knowledge. Though, we do asked the why question the responds have always been the standard glib answer attributing every unfortunate circumstance that derails human progress to the wrath of the gods. If we live in a society where a person addicted to alcohol blames an octogenarian old lady waiting for a rendezvous with her maker, people losing their heads to accompany a dead chief sanctioned from authority on high and the practice of Trokosi etc., then what sort of chance do we have. Ghanaian children, the leaders of tomorrow, are still being fed with ridiculous superstition that some will grow up wasting precious years to fight off those chains, which Bob Marley referred to as mental slavery. For the many, they will take them to the grave because human inertia is such a potent force, which is very difficult to break. Dismantling societal norms is just like asking the sun to rise from the west and set in the east. It takes an unusual combination of social events to bring about a change. The Europeans had their Black Death to bring them out of the ignorance of darkness to the knowledge of light. I am not asking us to go through the same experience as the Europeans but to reflect on the essence of history.

Philip Kobina Baidoo Jnr



Columnist: Baidoo, Philip Kobina