Michela Wrong finds three years isn't enough

If I had £50 for every time I've heard the words "I've only been in Africa for . . ." on the lips of

Launching myself into a familiar rant against World Bank policies with a young journalist covering East Africa the other day, I became aware that I wasn't getting much of a response. Was it too tedious? Too banal to merit counter-argument? Neither. He was bright, he was eager; but he had nothing to contribute. "You have to understand," he apologised, "that I've only been here two years."

Ah yes. If I had £50 for every time I've heard the phrase "I've only been here for . . ." on the lips of an expatriate living on the African continent, I wouldn't need to write a column for the New Statesman. Whether they are diplomats, journalists, representatives of international lending institutions or employees of non-governmental organisations, all prove susceptible to a phenomenon that blights foreign policy in Africa: there's a vacuum in the place where institutional memory should be.

From experience, I'd say that this young journalist was actually getting dangerously long in the tooth. Normally, it's "I've only been here four months" (or "I've only just arrived"), usually followed shortly by "I've got a new posting", the farewell party and the ritual handover of car, servant and drinks cabinet.

Of course, this lacuna is not exclusive to organisations interacting with Africa. It's becoming a by-product of modern employment patterns. My former employers, the Financial Times, were the people who, in their determination to cut the wages bill, cheerfully waved goodbye to more than a hundred years of journalistic experience in one bout of redundancies - a statistic that would have kept me awake at night, had I been editor of the day.

But here on the African continent, where an informed perspective is so vital, the fault is actually built into the system and is part and parcel of the expatriate experience. Whether in embassies or news agencies, staff tours of duty rarely last more than a few years. I suppose the assumption is that life in the developing world is so hellish that only the shortest of stints is tolerable. A colleague dubs it the three-year cycle. First year:

optimism; second year: pessimism; third year: prepare to leave.

Just when the expatriate has reached his most useful phase, fully aware of his host nation's peculiarities and possibilities, he is expected to apply for a new posting or risk being labelled a one-note wonder, lacking in ambition, unhealthily obsessed.

So it's not unusual to find oneself being briefed by an embassy

officer who is clearly frustrated at being denied the chance to use his Chinese, or chatting with a development official whose study is decorated with mementos of his days in the Middle East, which he clearly much preferred to Africa.

It's the same story in journalism. As someone who felt, after a dozen years in Africa, that I was beginning to get my teeth into the subject, I was taken aback to be told by an American reporter - a full three years under her belt - that she thought the story was beginning to pall and it was time to move on. When I recently queried why it was that one of East Africa's leading news agencies had such patchy coverage, I learned that the longest-serving international reporter had been in situ just three years. If that journalist happened to be on duty, the file had depth and perspective. If not, not.

This merry-go-round poses real dangers. It is often said that Africa has squeezed the changes that it took the west thousands of years to work through into a few short decades. For those in the tiny political elite, ready to adapt as long as they remain on top, that historical compression implies a dizzying series of transformations as they reinvent their virginities with all the application of a Russian mail-order bride.

Moving from rebel chief to opposition leader (and then back again), from human-rights lawyer to establishment bastion, can take place in a matter of a few years. To examine the careers of the southern Sudanese vice-president, Riek Machar, the Kenyan assistant minister Koigi wa Wamwere, or President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, is to reel at man's gift for endless self-reinvention.

And then there's the sex thing. Scratch the surface of a contest between two African supermen and - as in the recent Ugandan elections - you often find une histoire de cul: a sex story. It is usually so familiar to the domestic audience that the local media won't bother mentioning it. The expatriate is left wondering what explains the extraordinary level of invective.

African voters, who know their own history, are both completely up to date and healthily cynical about these motives and metamorphoses. But diplomats and reporters, united in their failure to grasp the back-story, fall victim to them surprisingly often.

Once, at a lunch at a western embassy in Kinshasa, which aimed at courting members of civil society and the opposition, I was amused to spot an enormously fat woman, dripping in gold, sitting across from me. That day, she was described as an "opposition representative". The previous time I'd interviewed Madame Nzuzi, one of Mobutu's most loyal supporters, she'd been spitting curses down on the rebel force marching in to topple her hero. Did her hosts actually know that? I doubted it.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Where did it all go wrong?