About halfway through my current 48-hour-long (!) voyage to Mulanje District in Southern Malawi, I am reminded of Chris Rock’s classic rant about how little he was taught about Africa in school, and how goddamned far away it is.
The only thing I know about Africa is it’s far – Africa is far, far away. Africa is like a 35-hour flight. So you know that boat ride was real long.
Here’s a link to the beginning of the whole bit about education, from his Bring the Pain standup act. It’s all great, but the part about Africa starts at 40:25. And Rock isn’t totally off-base. Sure, you can get to some parts of Africa from the US pretty quickly, but going to many parts of the continent takes a crazy long time.
Indeed, the most recent leg of my journey, from Atlanta’s scenic Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to O.R. Tambo on the outskirts of Johannesburg, is the fourth-longest nonstop commercial flight in the world, and the longest operated by a US carrier. In all, I will spend some 27 hours on planes and another 14 or so in airports to get to my destination (plus several hours of other transit). This route, which gets me directly to Blantyre’s Chileka Airport, avoids up to a day of extra travel time and a long bus ride from Lilongwe down south.
A lot of this could clearly be done more quickly, in theory. For example, Johannesburg is an airline hub for Africa because it’s a big city that’s had a major airport for a long time, not because it’s a conveniently central location a la America’s Salt Lake City. And the effective remoteness of places like Southern Malawi has real consequences for people other than itinerant development economists: it raises prices of imports and weakens the region’s ability to export goods at a profit.