There’s a reason why Africa specialist and former ambassador Gurjit Singh has named his book on India-Africa economic partnership ‘The Harambee Factor’. The word Harambee, in Swahili, means ‘to pull together’ and has its origin in Indian porters who were brought in by the British during colonial times to work on the Mombasa Kisumu Railway. While picking up heavy loads or rail tracks, the Indians used the term Hari (referring to Lord Vishnu) and Amber (Goddess Shakti) as an invocation that soon became part of local lingo.
Put in the larger context, ’Harambee’ is a longstanding African tradition, deeply ingrained in the moral compass of the region (it even appears in Kenya’s coat of arms) and signifies people getting together to help out one another. And just the perfect term to symbolise India’s engagement with this great continent, for, as the author declares right at the beginning of this book, ‘Africa’s time has come!’
Adding how the twenty-first century, labelled as the Asian century, is now also becoming an African century, he then sets out, extensively and in much document-and-statistics-backed detail, the contours of India’s relationship with this 54-nation geography, which history, economics and even chemistry, have had a role in shaping.
The author’s long chequered career as an ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union, his stint at the external affairs ministry’s Africa division, his role in organising the three India Africa Forum summits (2008, 2011 & 2015) all means this is one man who can bring in a first person perspective to India’s engagement with this crucial link of the emerging economy jigsaw. All the more so in the post-Non Aligned Movement era where the Modi government has been trying hard to capitalise and develop India’s stature as a beacon for the ‘global south’.
Yet, Africa remains more complex and more like an evolving young beauty who’s increasingly hard to get if you play by the old rules. And that has been India’s flaw perhaps for some time, as the relationship was guided more by the shared history of colonialism, the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and people-to-people contact over centuries — the links have been as tenuous as even the monsoon winds between the east coast of Africa and India.
As Singh writes, “in the twenty-first century, the winds must be guided so that the partnerships become more fruitful.”
All the more so when Africa is poised on the verge of becoming the new focal point for superpower manoeuvres, with its rich resources that nations across the globe, and not just China, seem to be coveting. The diplomat in him limits Singh from calling out this new-found stature of the continent and Beijing’s great game at play, though.
While that would have made this book a racy read, instead Singh ensures his focus sticks to India’s engagement with the African countries, considering the ringside view he has had across the past few decades. He supports it with facts and figures, on the various bilateral and multilateral engagements, as well as the informal and private sector partnerships that have seen India emerge as the African continent’s third biggest trading partner after China and France, ahead of the likes of the US and UK.
This is not a book for those who are hoping for some inside info on India’s soft gloved shadow boxing with China and other powers in this second biggest of all continents (though the book refers to Africa as the world’s largest continent at one point) or the race for new age ‘white gold’ minerals that may just set off a new race here, much like colonialism more than a century ago.
Instead, this book is more a detailed chronicle of India’s connect with Africa — while including in grave detail the many governmental and diplomatic initiatives sometimes makes this book laborious, one has to realise it would well be a handy handbook in the years to come for anyone from an individual migrant to bureaucrat, scholar or entrepreneur.
THE HARAMBEE FACTOR
India-Africa Economic and Development Partnership
By Gurjit Singh
Price Rs 2,950