As a student of law in the 1970s, I had a lot of free time on my hand. This allowed me to visit the countries where my father was the Swiss Ambassador in that time, Ethiopia, China, and Tunisia. After my visits to Ethiopia and leaving Switzerland for Tunisia, it would never have occurred to me to say that I was going to ‘Africa’. Once in Tabarka, the Tunisian wine region, I was surprised by snowfall in spring. Tunisia and Morocco are both fully in the northern temperate climate zone. In Morocco I was only once, for a seminar on conflict resolution and mediation, while I was the UN Coordinator for Somalia. I knew that in the winter, you can ski in in the Atlas Mountains. And crossing the continent from Somalia to Marrakesh to learn how to deal with people who use a Kalashnikov rifle as a negotiation tool, was also a rather chilling prospect. At the Strait of Gibraltar, Europe is only 13 kilometers away from Africa and around the whole Mediterranean Basin, its southern as its northern coasts, the climate is very much the same: Mild, moist winters and hot, dry summers. The similar climate results in a similar vegetation: Scrubby and dense evergreen shrubs, bushes, and small trees. We are far north of the Tropic of Cancer and the coastal regions of Algeria, Libya and Egypt enjoy this same climate,
Homo sapiens consumed alcohol very early in his evolution. He used it for nutrition, rituals and medicine, but also for enjoyment of life, as a social lubricant and for relaxation. First it was made from fermented fruits and berries, then, introducing elementary food technology, it was produced as honey wine, then as beer, mostly a cereal brew. One plant that thrives in the Mediterranean climate is the grape vine and around 4’000 BC, modern humans started producing wine from grapes. First possibly in the Levant or in Egypt. As recorded, the Egyptians went on to produce at least seventeen kinds of beer and twenty-four kinds of wine. By 400 BC the Greeks and the Romans had established a trade network around the Mediterranean and had given a boost to the wine culture. This allowed France to establish its wine industry and Carthage, that is today’s Tunis, to cater for the region in sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes. Not my preference. At their independence from France, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia all had important wine industries. And when as a student I was looking for an affordable wine for with a can of ravioli, a bottle of ‘vin d’Algérie’ was still an available good bargain.
The first alcohol I had was at my Christian confirmation, when a glass of dry red wine, maybe a Pinot Noir or a Merlot del Ticino, was offered to me by my grandfather in the ritual of admitting me as a full member to the family table of the grownups. Okay, possibly I had a beer or two before that, on an evening out without my parents for dancing lessons or a visit to the theatre. Wine had always been on the table with meals in our family. I remember the courage I had to build up as a child, when my grandfather would send me down to his wine cellar to bring him a new bottle of his table wine, ‘St Magdalener’. The staircase was steep and dimly lit and turned around a corner, and the wine cellar with its loose gravel floor was dark and cool and humid. Once I had the bottle in my hands, I would turn on my heels and flee that mysterious and threatening place, race back up the stairs, without daring to look back, I had to outrun the ghosts and evil spirits that were after me, and rescue myself into the higher, well-lit and inhabited part of the house. I live today only because these flights always succeeded.
Today, despite the good climate, North Africa and wine don’t match anymore. The countries of Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya along the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea are called the Maghreb. This makes them the ‘western part’ of the Arab world. Egypt is even considered being an Arab state, the Sinai tying it to the Mashreq of the Arabian Peninsula. And all of these countries are Muslim, at least predominantly. And since the awakening of Islam after independence and then its radicalization with the export of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the wine production of North Africa has dwindled. And since the Arab Spring of 2011, Islamic activists are suppressing the consumption of alcohol, although legally it is still allowed. Only Libya has banned it altogether.
Africa is the only continent that reaches from the temperate climate zone of the northern hemisphere all the way through the tropics into the temperate zone of the southern hemisphere. South of the Tropic of Capricorn, the southern parts of Madagascar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia are in this southern temperate climate zone. So is all South Africa, with the two enclaved countries of Lesotho and Swaziland or by its new name, Eswatini. Along the south-western Atlantic coast of Namibia and South Africa, there are colonies of an African penguin and snowfall in South Africa in the winter is common. Both South Africa and Lesotho boast a ski resort – although they have to add artificial snow on the courses to make it worthwhile. These are features that barely come to mind when we talk about Sub-Sahara Africa. And then there is the ‘Mediterranean’ climate in the Western Cape of South Africa where wine is grown since the middle of the 17th century and today, they produce ‘wines of origin’ – many better than French wines ‘mis en bouteille au chateaux’.
And apart the good climate for wine, there is a political connotation to South Africa that makes it different from the rest of the continent. Or at least, there was. I followed the 1996 African Cup of Nations in football in a sports bar in Nairobi. Anyone familiar with football knows, of course, that football goes with beer, not wine. But that’s not the point. South Africa was hosting the tournament and had beaten Ghana in one of the semi-finals. Tunisia beat Zambia in the other, setting up the final between South Africa and Tunisia. The comments in the bar were unanimous: “This is the end of African football”. Two years after Apartheid had been abolished, South Africa was still associated with the White Man’s rule of the Apartheid system. And Tunisia was already then perceived as part of the Arabic and Islamic world. – South Africa won the final with two goals to nil and since then, has made great progress in bringing itself on the sub-Saharan political and cultural map. Whereas Islamic tendencies in Tunisia have increased. With a good climate for wine in common, Tunisia and South Africa are today not only a continent but worlds apart.
Between the temperate climate zones of the North and the South of Africa, we have the tropics and in the northern part of the Tropic of Cancer, the Sahara Desert. That alone is the surface of the United States. The Sahara starts immediately south of the band of coastal vegetation along the Mediterranean Sea. Kairouan in Tunisia, one of the Holy Cities of Islam, is only 55 kilometers off the Mediterranean coast. Its name is derived from ‘caravan’, it was an endpoint of the trans-Sahara trade routes and as such one of the northern gates to the desert. Deserts are badland with no or barely any rainfall, arid, and hostile to most forms of organic life. Yet, a number of large and small oases interrupt the barren land of the Sahara. There, water from a spring or a well transforms the bleak and lifeless land of the desert into green and fertile sanctuaries for plant and animal life. Water is life. Tozeur, the charming town to the South-West of Kairouan, is only 200 kilometers off the coast and already an oasis in the Sahara. I loved it. I preferred the still and mystical way of life of the desert people of Tozeur over the sedulous one of those engaged in business and religion in Kairouan. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, the Sahara spans the African continent through the moderate climate countries of Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. But the Sahara reaches much further south, into the countries of Mauretania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan, in the Tropic of Cancer.
In the southern parts of these countries, the Sahara passes into the Sahel. ‘Sahel’ is again Arabic, meaning ‘coast’, the coast of the Sahara. In my time as the Swiss Ambassador to Niger, I once visited Agadez, an important southern hub on the old trade routes of the Sahara. It used to host cultural festivals celebrating the mystic culture of the peoples of the Sahara. Today it is still the gateway to those old trade routes. But for a new business: Smuggling and illegal South-North migration from West Africa to Libya, and on to Europe. And it has become the stronghold of the nomadic Tuareg and Berber in their rebellion against the sedentary peoples and governments of the Sahel countries. And since 2012, when al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb established itself in Mali, various Islamist movements, with the Islamic State in the mix, are exalting their grievances and spreading jihadist insurgency and terror from there. Politically, all this makes Agadez sound very unsettled. Yet, when you are there, everything is calm and relaxed. It begins with the never-ending greetings: “How are you doing today”, “and your family”, “and your health”, “and your business”, and particularly during the hottest season, “and your fatigue?” You ask a stranger in the street to give you directions and he – it is obviously a man, in the streets of Islamic Agadez – may decide to accompany you. And then for the next few hours. And then invite you for a meal to his house. Agadez may be a political hot bed, but it is also a slow paced, dozy town, where time can stand still. In Agadez, time is taken for granted and life allowed to take its natural course.
As the Sahara, the Sahel spans the 5’500 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. The belt of semi-arid land of the Sahel continues south into the northern parts of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Today, the Islamists have also set foot into the North of these countries. In the Sahel, rainfall allows the growth of thin vegetation, bush and small trees, and it can support some animal life, some rare gazelles, snakes, and baboons. And the livestock of the nomadic peoples living there. But the herders are constantly on the move, following the rainfall. Their own and their herds’ survival depends upon a single unpredictable and often scanty, annual rain. The further we go south, the more fertile the land gets.
And when I was accredited to Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, I learned of odd consequences of another one of those lines the colonial powers have drawn into the geography of the African continent: The borders between states. At the border between the two countries, the fertile and productive South of Burkina Faso, where the Burkinabé farmers grow the best and most tasty tomatoes and onions, becomes the dry and unproductive North of Côte d’Ivoire. There is no natural reason for the Ivorians south of the border not also growing tomatoes and onions. It’s the same geography and the same climate. The only difference is what the people do on either side of that imaginary border line. Another border story between the two countries occurred during the Ivorian Civil War when Burkina Faso supported the rebellious North. For all practical reasons, the border disappeared. To some Ivorian cacao producers from the South this was an invitation to export their cacao through Burkina Faso, avoiding the port of Abidjan and taxation in Côte d’Ivoire. The cacao was driven through Burkina Faso around the North of Ghana to Benin, and down to the port of Cotonou. And in the registers of Benin, Burkina Faso – with not one cacao tree growing in the Sahel country – became an exporter of cacao.