The main narrative of Joseph Conrad’s only novel set in Africa, “Heart of Darkness,” begins and ends in the damp, dreary Belgian city of Brussels.
For the Polish seafarer-turned-novelist, the northern European capital epitomized bourgeois hypocrisy, crammed with lavish palaces and public buildings paid for by the sufferings of the enslaved millions in the Congo reaping ivory, rubber and decades later, cobalt and copper.
My own, much more recent fascination with Africa can also be traced back to the comic hero Tintin’s hometown.
In fact, the Brussels I visited last month was as “sepulchral” as Conrad eerily described it.
What was I doing in Brussels? Well, having been appointed to the board of trustees of the International Crisis Group, I was in the city to attend my first board meeting. The ICG is an independent non-profit organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.
It is led by the highly-regarded Canadian jurist Louise Arbour, formerly a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and has over 150 staff across the globe.
I have used their analysis for more than 15 years so I was very pleased to be involved, especially since my fellow board members included George Soros, Javier Solana and the Pakistani lawyer-cum-activist Asma Jahangir. ICG’s reports, which are free and online, are worth checking out.
I found myself most intrigued by ICG’s sessions on Africa, so much so that in the short breaks, I’d dash out to explore the local bookstores and antique shops in the Place Sablon and Avenue Louise, which were full of artifacts from West and Central Africa.
In fact, an extremely comprehensive session on Sudan prompted me to search for maps and histories of the deeply-troubled nation.
When I returned home to Southeast Asia, my bags were hopelessly overweight.
I was also invited by a fellow board member, Mo Ibrahim, to attend his foundation’s Governance Weekend in Dakar, Senegal.
The idea of traveling halfway across the globe to West Africa seemed a little crazy — but who am I, if not crazy?
So I packed my bags and headed off to Africa — boarding a Kenya Airways 777 late one night in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Landing in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport was an eye-opener as my fellow passengers rushed off to board their respective connecting flights to destinations as exotic as Kigali, Luanda, Lubumbashi and Juba — names I’d only ever seen in an atlas.
Plunging into Nairobi was both enthralling and enervating. The Kenyan capital has both Jakarta-style traffic jams and a reputation for crime.
Still, I dashed around meeting journalists, activists, political analysts and researchers with one hand very firmly gripping my knapsack.
During dinner with friends at their farmhouse high above the city in the lush, wooded Ngong Hills, I marveled at the city’s raw energy.
Three days later, I boarded another plane, preparing myself for a nine-hour journey to Dakar via Abidjan. It was worth it: the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Governance Weekend provided me with even more food for thought.
Indeed, there were moments when I felt as if I was back in Indonesia circa 2002: witnessing the inception of something very dramatic and loaded with potential.
The weekend was a flurry of encounters — some extended though many were tantalizingly brief.
There was lunch with the South African Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, a bit of gyrating on stage with singer Angelique Kidjo and meeting with one of the most impressive young leaders I’ve ever come across — the multilingual Cameroonian banker Mamadou Toure.
I knew that I was in the right place at the right time.
Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.