Our conversation with GALLI MONASTYREVA, the Director of Humanitarian Projects at the Association for Economic Cooperation with African countries, was both interesting and heartfelt. Only a person with a sincere love for their work, and for Africa, can talk about it as she does.
– Galli Germanovna, after several decades of relative quiet, cooperation between Russia and Africa is now undergoing, one could say, a second birth. What challenges does our country face along the way?
– In the AECAC, I am responsible for humanitarian projects. All major projects begin with cultural and humanitarian initiatives. We are the first swallows, whose flight heralds the arrival of businesses.
In my view, the main difficulty is that we in Russia do not know Africa at all. Many people think of it either as being like Russia was in the nineties, or as an extremely backward continent, with the natives running around in loincloths and brandishing Kalashnikovs. And few people are interested in finding out how things really are there.
Africa is not the same today as it was 30 years ago. It has changed beyond recognition. Several generations of people who studied economics in the most prestigious Western universities have now reached maturity. Obviously, as far as technical development is concerned, things are not all that great for ordinary people. But the colonial powers were not concerned with making life better for the local population. They needed to have a good life themselves, and did all they could to achieve their goal.
– Absolutely, and that is the reason for the recent coups…
– Both the young generation of leaders and the people say they are tired of feeding corrupt governments who serve the interests of the US and France. The local people want to control their own lives.
Doing business is always difficult, wherever you look. If we lack knowledge, then our work will always be challenging and sometimes even frightening. People need to travel to Africa, see it and get to know it for themselves, as online negotiations of the kind we are used to with European countries do not work there. The only way is to make personal contacts, and get to know the country for yourself. Believe me, if you are based in Moscow, Tomsk or Kazan, you will never be able to succeed in business projects in Africa.
Africa has a huge need for investment and offers great opportunities for doing business. This includes agriculture and food packaging, forestry, power generation, and processing of papayas and mangoes, which are more popular in every African country than potatoes are in ours! But Western companies export these fruits, process them into juice and sell them back to the African countries at many times the original price. According to the ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Congo, their incredibly green country even has to buy toothpicks from Europe.
In general, the main need is to develop medium-sized and especially small businesses. The main message we hear for state organizations is: “Come to us, and we will help you, and you us.”
Africa is now a very open continent for us. But the most important thing is to properly study the region which you are going to visit. Now, with the Internet, this is easy to do. To begin with, I would recommend you to read and listen to an interview between Oleg Borisovich Ozerov, head of the Secretariat of the Russia–Africa Partnership Forum, and Irina Olegovna Abramova, Director of the Institute of Africa at the Russian Academy of Sciences. They describe the situation in a very clear and accessible way.
– Some of the countries are very pro-Russian, while others are much less open…
– To a greater or lesser extent, Russia provides support to Algeria, Angola, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, Sudan and South Sudan, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. But almost all the countries in Africa welcome Russia.
In fact, in all the countries where we established humanitarian missions, we heard a single message: “Russia is the greatest and best country in the world! Putin represents strength and fairness!” Just the other day, in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country which under its former leader Mobutu Sese Seko was far from the friendliest country to the USSR or Russia, we were told that the people of this country very much want Vladimir Vladimirovich to visit and that if he comes the whole country will come to the airport to meet him! All 112 million of them!
I always follow the principle that love must never be insistent. Countries are like people! I mean, when it comes to relationships, everything is very similar. If someone doesn’t want to be friends with you at the moment, you just need to wait, and focus on those who do want your friendship, who are asking for it. Almost all the countries in Africa have great mineral wealth, but the people there are very poor because their colonizers reduced them to penury. And Africa, seeing great changes in Russia, and in its strong president, who was not afraid to follow his own course against the entire Western world, also wants real freedom.
And you should also know for sure that all Africans, absolutely without exception, are very open and good-natured.
In addition, I would recommend that Russian and African businessmen, before opening any business, whether in Africa or in Russia, should consult our association and the Russian embassies in these countries, and with the Africa Institute, which I mentioned earlier.
I would like to give a word of warning here. Lately, various companies have appeared, promising to help you with starting a business in Africa, but they really just want to make money out of you. I would advise people in business to be very careful and check all the information carefully. In Africa, we also need people we can rely on, including state officials.
If your business is legally registered, and you pay all your taxes, then you will have no problems. Nobody will take anything from you, and you will be able to work and make a profit without interference.
– What can we bring to Africa? And what do they have to offer us?
– We can offer education and technology. Africa is a very young continent.
According to UN figures, Africa has a total population of more than 1.4 billion, of whom 799.5 billion (61.5 %) live in the continent’s ten most populous countries. The median age in Africa is 18.6, compared with 31.2 in Asia and 41.7 in Europe. African women have an average of 4.7 children each, compared with a global average of 2.5.
In most of the countries, there are no university entrance exams. They have a huge number of young people who want to study. And most of them are interested in technology and engineering, areas where we are the best in the world. Geodesics, cartography, chemistry, gas, mining and metallurgy are all fields in which we have no rivals. The Africans want to learn from the best specialists, in order to become the best. So there is a huge demand. And it is great that our Russian universities are opening their doors and increasing their quotas for African students.
Almost all Africans speak three or four different languages. And, by the way, they learn Russian very quickly. Many high-ranking Africans still speak Russian because they once studied in Russian educational institutions. They perfectly well realize that we are not the same as the Chinese. We bring Africa technologies, and not money. We are ready to share our knowledge, experience and education. If other countries bring them fish, we bring them fishing rods so they can catch fish for themselves.
–Not long ago, you returned from your most recent trip. As part of the project “Russia and Africa: strength of friendship, through the years and across distance”, you visited Senegal and Mali. How busy and productive was your program?
– Incredibly busy! The main goal of our trip was to make presentations to students from these countries’ leading universities, and tell them about the achievements of Russian science and education – the areas where Russia is a leader.
Unfortunately, in the last 30 years, Russia has lost a lot of ground in Africa. And young Africans do not know who Pushkin or Gagarin were. In Mali, which is a pro-Russian country, there is a Gagarin Street – it is the street where the Russian embassy is located. But in our meeting with some 600 people, only one knew who Yuri Gagarin was. He was a teacher who has studied in Russia.
As I have said, in the last 30 years three young and pro-Western generations have grown up, and they know nothing about Pushkin or Gagarin. For them, the first cosmonaut was an American, and the second was Chinese. We tell them how things really were, but we don’t teach them how to live their lives, we just inform them of the facts.
We go to African countries to show the people that we are open and that we are always happy to share our knowledge and our technology with them. We tell them that they can come to Russia, get the best education in the world, and then return home better specialists and make their own countries better. Africa’s young people are a true inspiration!
– I know that you were joined on that trip by pilot, cosmonaut and Hero of Russia Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. Is space exploration something that can bring Russia and Africa closer together?
– Definitely! Sergey is a good example of how, after graduating from a Russian technical university, a person can realize their dream of flying into space. He didn’t succeed in becoming a cosmonaut the first time round, and he’s quite honest about this. And we also tell our audiences about Tsiolkovsky and Korolyov, about Gagarin and Tereshkova. Sergey shows a film about life on the International Space Station. And by the end of the meetings, usually the whole room wants to be as intelligent, strong and determined as the Russian cosmonaut.
Students tell us that they are often visited by American and Chinese astronauts. But they have nothing to offer, they only tell their audience how great they are, while the Russians offer opportunities and dreams!
A couple of times in Mali I heard the question: we are at war, how can we start thinking about space? And Sergey answered that a person always needs to dream. And who knows, maybe one of the students in the hall at the moment will one day become Mali’s first cosmonaut.
You know, once the Ambassador of the Republic of Cameroon in Moscow told me that, as a young boy from a poor family, he was so inspired when he heard the news of Gagarin’s flight into space on the radio that he went to get a higher education, became a diplomat and now works in Russia! That’s wonderful!
When we meet young people on our trips, we teach them to seek out opportunities. And space helps them do this. On the one hand, it seems incredibly remote, and on the other hand… There he is, a real cosmonaut, and you can ask him questions and have your photograph taken with him.
Our trip was widely reported on by all the main media outlets, including radio and television. It was a great pleasure for us to be so welcome. I was also struck by the huge number of Russian flags. For example, after the victory over the terrorists in Kidal, the whole town went out into the streets, flying Malian and Russian flags. It was a great pleasure to see.
I would like to point out that our trips are supported by grants from the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Support Fund and the Russian World foundation, with the support of the Africa Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum.
– In the Russia-Africa summit in Saint-Petersburg, there was a big focus on education. That was now half a year ago. Has work begun in this area?
– Yes, it has, and very actively! For example, in Senegal unfortunately all the universities have been closed since September because the president is afraid of new student protests. But despite various difficulties, Russia is now very active in the Golden Continent, as the Africans themselves have taught me to call it – and I fully agree with them. It really is a golden continent, both in the literal sense, as it has the largest reserves of all the world’s minerals, including gold and diamonds, and in the figurative sense, as it has a great deal of sunshine and happy people. Despite the difficult living conditions in many countries, Africans are incredibly joyful, welcoming and smiling people!
In particular, the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation has assigned different pedagogical universities to different countries. The teachers from these universities travel to the countries in question to teach Russian in newly-established open education centers.
The South Ural State University is paired with Mali. Voronezh State Pedagogical University is paired with the Democratic Republic of Congo, etc. During our trip, we talked to these teachers. The local young people take great pleasure in learning Russian. In Russia, as well, a lot of work is being done in this area. Recently, Mendeleev University invited African teachers, including Russian language teachers, to Russia for two-week professional development courses, where they were taught new teaching methods and immersed in a Russian language environment. African teachers visited Belgorod University and Chechnya and were very impressed, as Amadou Keita, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research of the Republic of Mali, informed us. Exchange programs between Russia and Mali have been introduced, and that is great. I have to say that it is a very long time since we have seen so much activity in this area.
– And how long did it take you personally to explore and understand this continent? And is it really possible to fully get to know and understand Africa?
– That’s really a philosophical question… It would probably be better to ask a specialist in African studies. They dedicate their whole life to studying Africa – and not the continent as a whole, but a specific region or ethnic group. It is like the situation with Russia – we cannot study all 89 regions and 196 nationalities. And Africa has 54 countries and anywhere from 500 to 8,500 nationalities and ethnic groups.
To understand Africa, you really need to love the continent. And to begin with, you need to learn about it. It is a fascinating continent! I am not an academic specialist in African studies, I have a practical background. And I began by reading about its history and studying its economy…
I talk a lot to Africans living in Moscow, and travel a lot to Africa. And I can certainly say that if you have visited two or three countries, that does not mean that you know Africa. The countries in that continent are as different as Yaroslavl, Makhachkala and Yakutsk are from each other.
It’s a great pleasure to talk to Africans because they are open, just like children. They are not self-important and overly reserved, like Europeans. If they feel that you are trying to deceive them, or dislike them, they will not want to have anything to do with you. But if they see that you approach them with an open heart, they will do everything for you, they will give you their last shirt. Don’t exploit them and treat them as a resource, like the Europeans do. We approach them as equals.
– Galli Germanovna, what does Africa mean for you now, and what place does it have in your life?
– Africa now has a very important place in my life. And I am very happy about this. We have chosen the path of education. We are the first people to give popular science talks highlighting the achievements of Russian scientists. This is the most effective way to reach Africans’ hearts. By giving them, something they can see and touch. That means engineering and technology. That is how we are encouraging them to turn towards Russia.
We can see that the French are very active there. Turkey is opening a large number of schools and universities. And the Chinese are building universities. We cannot get left behind.
Of course, it is difficult to be first. But our presentations go down like a bomb, and I mean that in a good way. The Russian cosmonaut was extremely popular. And I hope that next year we will get a presidential grant and involve more cosmonauts in our project.
Now, we are tilling the soil, so to speak. And next we will be able to move on to cultural and business projects.
Interviewed by Yulia NOVITSKAYA, writer, journalist and correspondent for “New Eastern Outlook”.