Thursday, July 10, 2008

Farewell to the Farm


I'm typing in the dark but that's okay cause I have a secret.

I'm on a plane in Johannesburg that's going to America and only my sister knows I’m sneaking back home.

I'm in the dark because my broken computer screen is flickering pretty colors that have nothing to do with what I'm typing. I'll check for typos later. Oh wait, part of the top of the screen is working now.

I've been thinking for some time about a closing Africa entry. I thought I'd make a list of things I learned like I did at the end of my around-the-world trip. It was going to start with my observation that however much toilet paper you think you need you can get by with half as much. I had trouble filling out the list.

But I can say this: I'm struck by the appeal of Africa, of the way added challenges compel both Africans and foreigners to work with each other, though not always in the Kumbaya sense westerners might prefer. I'm thinking more of squeezing together on a bus or sharing sugar with a neighbor.

It is inescapable that the vast majority of Africans do not have a western work ethic. When you spend a year raising money to give someone a chance to fulfill some dream you hope they have and after two or three hours they say they're tired and want to take a break you are apt to become quite frustrated. Perhaps the problem was getting on a plane and trying to make someone else more like you. Or maybe it wasn't.

There are many things about Africa that I think people are just afraid to say because of race. There is a celebrity aspect walking down the streets of an African town that every white visitor knows but none have ever mentioned in my presence. The waves from children and the gawks from their parents give you the feeling of being somehow special, or at least notable.

I liked to downplay the documentary aspect of my trip and tell people I was just traveling. This often coaxed out their thoughts on why people come here and why they should. Some would be impressed or pleased that I was "just traveling." Others—like the African-American who just landed in Africa for the first time to tell Malawi how to organize their 7th grade curriculum—wanted to know what my "purpose" was. The idea that I was just traveling seemed to confuse him, or even trouble him. He seemed relieved by the documentary and worried about how he was going to get home that night. The other people working on his project were afraid to go out of their hotel alone because they might get robbed.

It should be mentioned that I had a strong, nebulous fear of Africa when I got on the plane in New York five months ago. That I'm now so quick to scorn those with similar fears speaks both to my smallness as a person and the irrational and ignorant perceptions we have from afar.

It speaks too of the change that has come over me, of a willingness to engage in physical confrontation, to be constantly on some passive state of alert, to accept risk. I think Hemingway said if you were willing to kill a man it would be sensed and then you'd never have to.

I'm getting quite far afield but I guess this is my clearinghouse of observation…

It's always funny when people say they “don't see color." I've heard white Americans say this and it always confuses or even troubles me. I certainly continue to see color in Africa but I think I came to see it in a physically different way. After I met someone here I would remember their hairstyle or clothes but not their skin color. If nothing else, spending a long time in Africa makes you stop noticing when someone is black, until you realize how much you used to notice.

I became tremendously retroactively amused at all the times I've heard people identify someone on the other side of the room with a long list of descriptions other than, "the black guy over there." As if we were all too enlightened to notice, or as if saying he's black would somehow be racist.

I think my time here has been a 10,000 mile trip to this conclusion:

Africa is not a car with engine trouble and you are not a mechanic. On weeks when Zimbabwe seems to be falling apart, on days when your aid project seems to be crumbling, it's impossible not to make some judgments. It's inhuman not to try to do something to help.

But I'd be a hypocrite if I said anything but this: I've spent five months in thirteen African countries and you shouldn't listen to a word I say.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The gender thing

I spent nearly a month in Lilongwe, Malawi which is very hard for me to believe. But it was broken up by a day in Nkhotakota and a week in a township called Area 25 where I waited for Bridget to have her baby.

On the fifth day I wasn’t getting much good material and I texted my girlfriend back in New York that I hoped the baby waited for day six. (My Malawian cell phone had cost $26 to buy and two or three dollars a day even to make a couple short calls; that’s the trick of cellphones here so I didn’t give it away to a Malawian when I left, I gave it to the owner of the campsite where I stayed and asked him to give it a good home).

A little while after I sent my text to Jill, Bridget decided she wanted to go to the hospital. She was four hours from delivering Solomon and a couple days from re-naming him Sean.

Bridget’s husband Pacharo was sitting on the couch watching a DVD and suggested Bridget call a friend and go to the hospital.

“I’m not going to walk to the hospital when there’s a car in the driveway,” she said. Pacharo is a taxi driver but didn’t feel like driving just then.

Bridget was feeling too much pain to remember all her tasks so Pacharo helpfully pointed out, “its 11, you need to cook some food.”

Bridget said she felt too bad to cook.

“Have Aubrey make something,” Pacharo decided, delegating to his brother. “And turn the volume up on the TV.”

It went like this for most of the day, which was too bad because I didn’t want Pacharo to look like such a terrible person in the film. He seemed as devoid of malice as he was of concern or competence.

Bridget and I never discussed just what I could film but she was fine with me filming it all and I did it in the most respectful way I could figure while standing 10 feet away with a giant camera.

The next day when I returned to the hospital to pay thanks to the nurses, one of them told me she had spoken to Bridget and she wanted to see the whole delivery on the DVD I had promised her. The nurse suggested I make a separate G-rated version for Bridget to show her friends.

I missed her at the hospital because she had already headed home and when I got to her house she was sweeping the area outside her front door.

People like to ask what my documentary is about and I like to say it doesn’t have a “topic” but a “concept,” the concept of following six people for a single day in their life. But it has become clear—thankfully—that there will be themes, and chief among them will be gender issues. In Niger I found women hauling hundreds of pounds of water in the 115-degree heat while their husbands sat in the shade. In Malawi Bridget served Pacharo while Jackie Chan kicked ass on another bootleg DVD.

The exception was Saly in Burkina Faso, a college student who says she’ll attract a good husband by having a good job. Its perhaps disheartening that her father died when she was a toddler and so her and her sisters were raised in an anomalous female-dominated home by a mother who sold porridge in the streets to raise tuition money.

These are the impossible value judgments a well-meaning person can be confronted with sometimes. Is it wrong that females are so “badly” treated? Should something be done about it? What?

The good news seems to be wrapped in the bad news. Traditional African society is changing, or even dying, as western values permeate imperfectly. Whether you like it or not, the Africa of imagination—if it ever existed—is being destroyed. More and more people like Saly are being produced as a result.

If the arc of Africa’s moral universe is bending towards equality, it still has long to go. Bridget had to drop out of secretarial school when she was orphaned and her extended family refused to support her because she had a different grandfather than the rest of the clan. She hopes for something different for her daughter Alice but something instructive happened on the day she delivered: Her happiest moment in memory came when the cord was cut and her strongest wish fulfilled. Her baby was a boy

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The baby wait

I’m sitting behind the worn, paisley couch in the giant living room of this Lilongwe, Malawi house. It’s Bridgette’s house, though her husband might say otherwise and their landlord might too.

Bridgette is nine months and six days pregnant if you trust the midwife at the hospital down the road, which I don’t necessarily.

My goal was to follow a woman on the day she gave birth and I won’t bore you with the searching trips up and down this skinny country, or the phone calls to bureaucrats who gave me the phone numbers of other bureaucrats, or the two women who agreed to the project and then delivered before I could start rolling.

I’m here in Area 25 with Bridgette and have been for four days now.

It’s 9pm and she’s just gone to sleep, its Saturday night and her taxi driving husband said “I’m coming back” as he headed out the door just before dinner. Bridgette, her brother-in-law and I watched a music video show and the evening news as her three-year-old daughter Alice (pronounced Ah-yeec) slept on the couch. There’s one TV station in Malawi (“The Station for the Nation”) so DVDs are popular. We’ve watched a bunch these last days; from Lion King to *NSYNC to Rush Hour.

Following people for a day in their life has been a wonderful excuse to get to know them in a way a foreigner rarely can. But spending the better part of a week cloistered in this big, ragged house has been several standard deviations more so.

Like other Africans I’ve followed, Bridgette has an uncanny knack for ignoring the camera, so much so that I’ll sometimes gesture or joke with her and she won’t notice. When I speak from behind the lens she’ll turn as if she’s been startled by someone she didn’t see standing there with a giant camera. The fly-on-the-wall aspect is enhanced by not understanding what’s being said. I’ll have the Chichewa translated later; for now I just shoot as much as I can and hope there’s something interesting in there.

I think it’s relevant that I don’t know what they’re saying and they know I don’t. On the first two days I brought translators. The first was lazy and the second greedy and I decided I didn’t need them anyway. Bridgette speaks some English and with a translator here she felt compelled to entertain (or at least talk to) the visitor. “That woman likes to talk,” she said when the greedy translator left.

I’ve agreed to go to church with the family tomorrow, the service will be three hours and I’m trying not to fantasize too much about Bridgette going into labor mid-sermon. I’ll be happy whenever this little stakeout ends and our story has its conclusion. But on the other hand I’ll miss running around with Alice and watching TV and sitting down to dinner with a family.

Monday, June 16, 2008

You have a friend in Malawi

Lilongwe, Malawi
Malawi is said to have some of the world’s friendliest people and I must say I’ve found the truism to be true. As soon as I crossed the crooked border from Tanzania I found the people more welcoming, more helpful.

The other day I was riding back to town in the car of a businessman and his wife. They had agreed to give me a lift from an area with little public transportation. I asked them why Malawians are so friendly.

“I think it’s because of our first president,” the man said, and once he gave his answer it was clear his wife couldn’t chime in without fear of appearing to contradict him. “He was very generous and taught people to be kind and considerate.”

“I think Malawian people always think, ‘What is it like to be the other person?’”

I thought that was the perfect explanation because beyond surface “friendliness”—constantly asking strangers ‘how are you?’—what impresses is the helpfulness. There is no better place to hitch a ride or borrow a cell phone or ask for directions. Perhaps it speaks to our own shortcomings that “friendliness” is really just when people do us favors without asking for something back.

Whenever I’ve had the “friendliness” conversation with a Malawian they’ve always pointed out that not everyone here is nice, as if it could be otherwise.

But even my run-in with a no-good proved positive. I took a mini-bus to the main Lilongwe bus stand for my trip towards the lake a couple days ago. It was a busy and crowded place and as I struggled out of the van with my two huge bags a guy in a Chicago Cubs hat came by the van and slipped what he could grab out of my left pocket. I caught it out of the corner of my eye and saw a familiar piece of paper flutter to the ground.

“What’s that?” I shouted mid-robbery as I bent over to pick up the list of phone numbers. “Thief!”

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, quite rhetorically.

I found I had shoved him against a nearby van with my one free arm and was shouting “thief” in conjunction with more colorful adjectives.

He didn’t push back but cowered a bit, was pushed against a second van and then scampered away as I advised him to “run, run you colorful-adjective thief!”

It was a strangely empowering experience that I highly recommend. Unlike successful robberies which have occupied my mind for days or weeks after the fact, this one rarely surfaces in my memory and when it does I just check to make sure my bag is zipped and turn to the passerby who has just called over to me and say, “Hey. Good. How are you?”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Africa's take on Obama

Lilongwe, Malawi
You might think Barack Obama would be real popular here in Africa. You might think Africans take some pride in the success of an African-American, that they feel a connection to him the way the Irish may have enjoyed the success of Jack Kennedy.

These days, I’d say that’s somewhat true.

But its been striking these last months to observe Obama’s emergence in the African consciousness. In February, in West Africa it was rare to meet someone who had even heard of the leading Democratic candidate. They knew about Hillary Clinton though, and liked her.

Landing in Kenya in late-April was a quick remedy for Obama’s surprisingly low profile. But even though he was well known and well liked, he wasn’t necessarily seen as a native son. When I leadingly asked a man in Nairobi what he thought of a Kenyan being president of the U.S. he didn’t take the bait.

“Oh no, he’s not a Kenyan, he’s an American,” he said.

In fact, as often as I’ve seen a Malawian sit in rapt attention as Jesse Jackson gives a speech on TV, I’ve heard from a Malian that Africans go to the developed world and forget the folks back home. (Indeed, a shocking and oft-repeated fact to help explain the health crises in Malawi is this nugget: There are more Malawian doctors in Manchester, England than all of Malawi).

I’ve never heard the term “African-American” used by an African; the word is “black.”

The relationship on this side of the disapora can be complicated, no less so since the U.S. and Europe aren’t viewed as welcoming to those who would like to work—or even vacation—in the rich world.

And there are familiar concerns for Obama’s candidacy here, mainly the question ‘Can a black man be elected?’ Some here are certain he can’t. And many aren’t sure he should be elected, still suspecting that Hillary would be better or McCain deserves consideration.

The most loyal constituency here are the ex-pats—Europeans and Americans—who live within the swirling complexity of racial injustice everyday and who may see Obama as a fulfillment of some struggle they know they are part of even if its nameless. The Dutch doctor who insists President Bush is a war criminal has an Obama campaign sign above his dining room table. He thinks Obama could change the world, could make America a positive force rather than a destructive one. Even he knows expectations are unrealistic.

But for a long time traveling as an American has meant getting browbeat about our current president. It’s refreshing now to be asked with hope and admiration about our next one.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Why is Africa so messed up

Lilongwe, Malawi
The first time I had the conversation was with three South Africans at an outdoor restaurant in Dakhla, Morocco. They had spent the last eleven months traveling up Africa’s west coast and were trying to sort through what they’d seen.

“All the American college girls in Ghana…” one of them said, trailing off. His point was that Ghana already had plenty of help while most of West Africa had none. But still more bubbly heroes landed in Accra every day. “It’s just…” frustrating or infuriating or stupid or disgusting. I don’t remember what he said but I remember what I said.

“But you can’t really diss do-gooding.”

Here I am now four months into my trip and I’ve had the conversation many more times. Its had in places like I’m sitting now, a dorm room at a camp site, where the white people sit around a table and confide in each other the revelations and disappointments of their experiences here.

So much of what we know about Africa in the west comes from stories designed to attract our money or our sympathy. To do that the story must be sure not to diss the do-gooders, or the Africans.

But around a guesthouse table at the end of the day, at the end of four months, those premises can seem false.

So the conversation dances around dangerous conclusions, dances around fears that you might sound racist. Or hopeless. The conversation is really about one question though: Why. Why is Africa so messed up and how could it get better.

Why, the Israelis ask, did the Tanzanian man they tried to help start a restaurant just run off with the money?

Why, the Indian restaurant owner asks, are his employees so lazy?

A lot of the time the conversation ends up dancing around the idea that people here are just lazy. The more you think that might be the case, the less willing you are to say it.

I’m willing to say it because I believe it isn’t true. I believe that western people have imposed western ideas on cultures with different priorities. Are Africans lazy or are Europeans so focused on tasks and far-off goals that they lose contact with their friends and family and the enjoyment of their life?

But in so many ways Africa has been colonized by western ways of living and is now irrevocably linked to them. The ubiquitous cell phones and expensive western clothes are incompatible with a mentality that prioritizes an 11am beer over heading back to the office.

Never mind that most people aren’t heading back to an office but to a plastic table where they sell cell phone credit or bananas for a few pennies profit.

So as Africa sinks deeper into the trap of this cultural divide, good intentioned people from the same countries that helped cause it, try to help Africa “catch-up.” They try to teach them the “right way” to farm, the “right way” to teach, the “right way” to run a business.

They try to give food to the hungry, care to the sick.

You can’t diss the do-gooding.

But I’ve come to believe Africa is an enormous, thin-iced lake and the west is sending lifeguards.

People are falling through so they send warm blankets too, and stack them on the melting sheet of ice. And then they send swimming instructors.

The responses are as logical and well meant as they are short-term and possibly corrosive.

Someone else will send ice cubes to preserve the lake. Can you see the shrinking ice? There are 800 million people living on it. How many lifeguards and swimming instructors and ice cubes do you think the NGOs can send? They’ll keep sending them and if you cared you’d donate a warm blanket to the drowning children of Africa.

What I like about this metaphor is that it doesn’t present an actual solution. What I like about this metaphor is that if someone is drowning you SHOULD send a lifeguard.

What I don’t like about this metaphor is it presents the challenges Africa faces as “problems” that must be “fixed.” It portrays it as a dire crisis; as if all of America were the Lower Ninth Ward.

And it would be better if the metaphor were extended to point out that the NGOs are sending fish but not teaching anyone how to fish. Or they’re sending fancy fishing rods with little instruction and no budget to repair them when they break. They certainly aren’t considering that Africans may already know a way of fishing that works better here than what you do on Lake Geneva.

But what you can’t forget is the westerners who are giving of themselves here really are better people than you and I. They are. But that doesn’t mean much for Africa.

I was having the conversation by a pool at a four-star hotel with a high-level European who’s spent 32 years of his life in African development. I asked him what he’d do if he were king. He paused and sighed and didn’t want to say it.

“I know it’s a dream. It’s a fantasy. It’s not possible. But in my dream, all the aid organizations, all the NGOs, all the development projects, everyone…. Everyone leaves.”

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A bus to nowhere


If you’re headed south to Malawi from Tanzania don’t buy a bus ticket to Lilongwe from Mbeya. That’s one thing I’ve learned.

The con men sold me the direct ticket from Mbeya to the Malawi capital yesterday when I got off the bus from Iringa. The idea was I would take a local Tanzanian bus to the border and then switch to the Malawi bus for the rest of the ride. Forty thousand shillings seemed a bit high, but not too high and I feared waiting to buy the ticket at the border could leave me without a seat. I was a bit suspicious, but I spend large swathes of my time here being suspicious.

I woke at 5:40am and the mini-bus trundled out of Mbeya an hour later. There were thirty of us in something a bit bigger than your parents’ mini-van. After four hours we were at the border and it became clear my ticket would take me no further. I had been napping until just before we made it to the border and it was the rudest of awakenings. Still in a fog I held my ground, got back on the bus and said I was going back to Mbeya to get my money.

It was a stubborn (or principled) thing to do since even in a best-case scenario I’d be going 12 hours out of my way to get $32 back. But I had an oh-no-you-don’t anger towards the friendly college student who ripped me off and it wasn’t about the time or the money; in fact the whole premise of his scam is that no rich whitey will bother going all the way back once they catch on at the border.

I believe that violence in the media does encourage violence in society and I believe this mainly because five years of watching boxing all day as my job really made me want to get in a fight. I still haven’t had the chance to throw a right cross but I was viscerally ready on the ride back to Mbeya. You couldn’t quite say I was willing to die over $32 but I was ready to inflict and/or receive more harm than $32 probably merits.

Five squished hours later we got back to Mbeya and the bus driver and “conductor”—whose job is to shout out the bus for more customers—told me to get out so they could sneak up on the bogus ticket seller without him seeing me in the van and realizing something was up.

I wasn’t sure whether to trust them but I didn’t have much choice so I took pictures of them and their van (something I nearly did with the ticket seller and obviously now wish I had) and waited at the police post.

The police seemed genuinely dismayed with my fate and not nearly competent enough to do much about it. The best “lead” was the serial number from the bogus ticket, since the seller still has the book of tickets, but I had to recommend writing that number down twice before the cop caught on.

The boys on their stealth mission didn’t find him and I wanted to go to Malawi so I cut loses and tried to catch the twice weekly direct bus that actually does go through Mbeya and down to Lilongwe. But no one knew anything about the bus and I finally ended up in the car of an Australian missionary looking for it in vain. She took me back to the main bus station where I had first departed 10 hours before. I got on another mini-bus and came here to the border, which had already closed.

A Tanzanian customs guard who happened to be on the bus got off with me and walked me to a guesthouse near the border. It was full. But another one had a room and I set up shop a few hundred meters from Malawi. I bought a nearly cool Serengeti beer and my first meal of the day. Just before the thundershowers rolled in I sat down at my broken laptop to write this stupid entry.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A touch of malaria

Jaimie might not have malaria. In fact a blood test today said she doesn’t. But the doctor here still thought she might—she has the requisite fever, aches, fatigue and stomach pain—so he gave her four sleeves of pills to combat the deadly parasite possibly spreading though her blood.

When you travel through Africa you’re constantly bumping into the woman whose husband is back at the hotel sick with malaria, or the aid worker who has survived three bouts, or the traveler who stopped taking his preventative pills after leaving the continent only to come down with it when he landed far from the offending mosquito.

Last week in Uganda we went rafting with a group of 14 young Brits working for three months in Malawi and all taking anti-malarial medication. Seven had contracted malaria.

Jaimie and I took a nap yesterday around 6pm and didn’t get out of bed until 7am this morning. I blamed my hibernation on too little sleep and too much Tusker beer. But even after the slumber Jaimie was achy and tired. By the afternoon we were freely quoting the Lonely Planet medical section, which lists many of her symptoms and notes that within 24 hours malaria can cause “jaundice, then reduced consciousness and coma (known as cerebral malaria) followed by death.”

A popular punch line this day was simply to tack on “followed by death” to the end of any sentence.

In the waiting room of the tiny clinic here in little Lamu, Kenya they’ve posted last year’s mortality statistics on a bulletin board, identifying the top five causes of local outpatient deaths. Nearly 3000 children die of malaria in Africa every day so its no surprise that on the chart of children under five malaria tops the list (“#1 malaria, 112 deaths,” “#5 accidents, 12 deaths”). But I was surprised that even among those older than five there were more deaths by malaria than the other four killers combined.

Malaria in Africa is a bit like heart disease in America: the causes and preventions are well-known but few think it will happen to them and many live lifestyles that invite trouble.

But unlike BigMac munching Yanks, many poor Africans can be somewhat excused for neglecting their ounce of prevention. Mosquito nets cost money, though not much.

In recent years aid organizations have handed out nets to some of the hundreds of millions of people who could be saved by them, including a Dutch effort to distribute nets in Lamu. Nets cost just a couple dollars each but they tear awfully easily. Hopefully there’s a better long-term plan for the nets than many of the roads here, which someone paved but no one maintained.

One learns without looking too hard here that band-aids aren’t forever and often the various forms of aid look like different kinds of band-aids. But Jaimie is lying in bed now, in pain and with hope, very happy that the clinic was here to hand out something to stop the bleeding.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Safari photobook

Jill, Jaimie and I spun through Masai Mara and Lake Nukuru earlier this month and I will now subject you to some of our holiday photos...

These lions were just hanging out in the tall grass when we rolled by. There was a giraffe mom and child near by keeping a close watch but the lions weren't interested.




This rhino was happy to pose in front of Lake Nukuru.




Lunchtime for a full grown male


Jill and I at Nukuru, one of the few places we could get out of the safari van


Jaimie and I safely standing in the pop-top


Masai tribes people jump to impress potential mates or, in this case, tourists.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Bad memories in Kenya

When Titus was a boy in western Kenya he grew to love Bruce Lee. To emulate his hero he took classes in tae kwon do and even now as a father wakes two hours before dawn to jog along the dark, uneven road near his house, pausing to kick the air or reel off push-ups as a few pre-dawn vehicles pass.

And then last December eleven masked men came to his house outside Kisumu and cleared out his living room. He was lying on the couch, half expecting them and pretending to sleep. One man carried two guns, another a bow and arrow, and another a machete. They were there because the owner of the compound Titus lives in is Kisii and they thought the rival tribe had helped steal the presidential election from their Luo leader.

Titus thought one man carrying two guns seemed odd and decided they weren’t real guns. So he waited for them to leave, crept behind the last of them and hit him over the head.

His possessions weren’t as important as his life but they were part of his life, part of what he had worked to earn, and letting someone take them would be like letting them take part of himself.

He managed to stop two bandits as the others ran; he recovered his TV but not his DVD player. He “beat the men thoroughly” until the cops came and brought the robbers to the hospital, where Titus believes at least one died.

“After what I’ve seen, it doesn’t bother me to kill,” Titus said.

What happened during the “post election violence” is still fresh in his mind more than four months after the city stopped burning. He remembers the old woman he saw robbed by a young gang. He recounts the story of the man who sat with his children for eight hours as his wife was repeatedly raped. In his presence.

“In his presence,” Titus repeats.

Titus is a quiet, trustworthy man who runs a rental car agency owned by a Dutch man. During the post election violence some of Titus’ friends said he should sell the rental fleet and take the money; the owner was in Holland and wouldn’t know the difference anyway.

But instead Titus made sure the agency’s fifteen employees were safe and fed. And he rescued two vans from the basement of the shop when word went around that the whole complex would be burnt to the ground because it was owned by a Kukuyo, the tribe of the president.

He drove one of the vans through a rowdy mob, bribing them with cases of booze he had found in his ruined shop. His computer and bankcards were gone from his looted office. His wallet was stolen by the mob as he pleaded with them to let him pass.

Titus calmly and eloquently says things like “the human animal is the most dangerous animal there is, you can never trust a human animal,” or “most people are not good,” or “there is a 50% chance this will happen again and if it does it will be much worse.”

A generation of people is growing up in Kenya now that has witnessed things no one should witness, Titus thinks.

“The children in the camps who have lost their parents… You can feed them, you can teach them, you can give them a place to stay, but you can’t change what is in their hearts. If you saw your father killed and your sister raped, what would you do?”

“They can smile and laugh with you and eat but they are not normal people now. There is something different inside them and some day it will explode.”

It sounds like you are a different person now too, I said to Titus.

“I think you are right.”

Monday, May 12, 2008

Lessons of an idle bus

Visitors aren’t good for travel blogs but they can be good for travelers and recent arrivals have been as good for me as they’ve been bad for this blog.

Jill landed in Nairobi a couple weeks ago and we flew for Zanzibar, the beach island with a catchy name off the Tanzanian coast. It was raining when we landed but we walked out of the airport anyway threatening to catch a bus to town instead of a taxi. This was enough to lower the price of the taxi.

The maximum ATM withdrawal was $65 and was dispensed in bills worth less than $2 and Jill joked that we should shower ourselves with the bulging wads of bills we needed for our four days there and take a picture.

We spent a couple of the bills on a ride to Page in the back of a pickup truck with 16 others on the rain soaked roads heading to the east coast of the island.

Page was empty and most of the hotels closed for the rainy season so after a couple nights we headed up to Nungwi where it was sunnier and more populated.

We flew back to Nairobi, met Jaimie and went on a safari, which is probably the most expensive and worthwhile thing I’ve done on this trip.

It is amazing how habituated the animals are to people and vehicles; only the zebras ran when we approached. On three occasions we rolled up within 20 feet of lounging lions and clicked at them for fifteen or twenty minutes without them paying much notice.

I tried—but probably failed—to avoid telling Jill and Jaimie how hard West Africa was compared to East Africa. It was exotic and intense and hard enough as it was. And then it got much harder.

We were back in Nairobi, heading west to Uganda and it was very early on a Wednesday morning. Jill and Jaimie were battling food poisoning, apparently from some scrumptious chicken stew the previous day and the bus ride was scheduled for 12 hours.

Our seats were in the back row of the bus and lacked the legroom needed to sit in a traditional seated position. I tried not to say it was just like the bus from Niger to Benin.

Jill later described the day of food poisoning in the back row of the bus as the worst of her life and it would be unkind to convey any more on her behalf except to report her admirable pluck in overcoming the ordeal.

We finally reached Jinja, Uganda where the Nile gets its start and some of the world’s best white water rafting is done. The next day Jill’s stomach was settled so we went rafting and before not long she had lost a tooth to the rapids. Whether it was claimed by her stomach or the Nile was not certain or important. But it was enough for Jill and Jaimie to curse rafts, rivers, and river rafting for a good chunk of the day. We made it 30 kilometers towards Egypt, then got off the water and into a van to Kampala.

The next morning around 8am we boarded our bus from Kampala to Lake Bunyoni after an hour wait in the “Passenger’s Shade Area.” The bus sat there in the parking lot for another three hours and Jill observed that traveling in Africa really tests your patience.

The only good part of sitting on the idling bus for three hours was we had seats in the front row and plenty of room. The ticket seller had promised the bus would leave hours before and when I complained he asked me to sponsor him to visit the U.S. I asked him why the bus had been running for three hours while it sat still in the parking lot waiting for passengers.

“In Africa if the bus isn’t on people won’t believe it works.”

Just before noon it finally pulled away, circled the parking lot and stopped. Everyone got off.

“We’re going on another bus,” someone said.

We took much worse seats on the new bus and finally pulled away. We reached our guesthouse on beautiful Lake Bunyoni about 14 hours after we left our place in Kampala. The bus ride was supposed to take five.


“It isn’t quite what you expect,” Jaimie said about traveling Africa yesterday. We were on a bus coming back from Bunyoni. The headlights didn’t work and we were parked on the side of the road for an hour waiting for some fuses to be replaced.

We were headed back to Kampala because somehow Jill’s two weeks in Africa were over and she had to fly home.

“I’m just getting good at this again,” Jill said.

She didn’t envy me the numbness of brushing off bus misery or ignoring what should be noticed and remembered. But she envied my chance to stay here and take another bus tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Coming to Kenya

Kenyans call their capital ‘Nairobbery’ and after dark I’ve been told to take a taxi for trips as short as a single block. But the danger keeping foreigners from Kenya these last months was tribal fighting that left more than a thousand dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

So you’ll excuse my surprise when I strolled the streets yesterday morning, somewhat cautiously at first, and found the most inviting city I’ve encountered on the continent.

If Nairobi is indeed on the same continent as Niger and Benin and Burkina Faso it is certainly a very large and diverse chunk of earth.

The German I shared a cab from the airport with insisted Lagos to Nairobi is considered a domestic flight. That so many westerners—even this one traveling in Africa—have trouble comprehending that Nigeria and Kenya are as distinct as Canada and America is deeply baffling to me.

To be honest, the toll of West Africa was starting to register on my good humor. The temperature topped 100 degrees (40 Celsius) nearly every day the last two months, and often reached 115. It had been several weeks since I compelled an ATM to function. The dusty, filthy air of the utterly polluted capitals leached out of my clothes as I washed them in another guesthouse sink. But probably worst of all, I lived in a bubble of my own making, unable to communicate with the French-speaking Africans or the small sprinkling of French-speaking travelers.

After two days, a gauntlet of all-day buses and multiple border crossings and near abductions and last-minute plane tickets deposited me in Nairobi at sunrise yesterday.

Prepared for the estimated two-hour visa wait I walked towards the empty immigration area. A guard took my passport, scanned my visa form, accepted my $50 and stamped me into Kenya all within 10 seconds.

The guard was extremely good-natured, so much so he paid little attention to his little-used stamp, which marked my entry on 26/12/07 (December 26, 2007). I pointed this out to him so he fixed the stamp and issued me a second visa for December 26, 2008. On the third try he corrected the month and I headed down to collect my luggage and walk past the idle customs officials who didn’t even look in my direction as I walked out.

The downside to being the only white person in the arrivals area of an airport that once had hundreds of tourists is the attention you receive from the folks who feed their family with tourism dollars.

But the aggressive taxi drivers and safari touts, even the ones crying poverty, were easy to ignore after months of smiling, one-armed boys gesturing to their mouths and asking for food. Let me show you some pictures from a village in Niger, I wanted to say, and then you tell me how bad your life is.

I could say that to them because they could understand me! They spoke English! Oh boy that was nice.

And the air was clean and cool! Sixty-degrees!

There were so many ATMs in the arrivals lobby I had trouble choosing. And they didn’t just take Visa cards (terrible, terrible transaction fees) but my Plus-network card that’s fee-free! Fee-free money!

Nairobi is a fine, modern capital that cannot really be compared with Dakar or Lagos or whatever West Africa would present as its urban beacon. Nairobi could easily be the capital of a less-prosperous European country.

It’s worth admitting that the people here may seem more friendly, more attractive, more engaging simply because I can communicate with them. But I don’t think that’s really the explanation.

If this is Kenya at the end of its dark days, then Kenya should be just fine. It’s more understandable to me now why commentators wondered at the height of the unrest here, ‘If this can happen in Kenya, what hope does the rest of Africa have?’

In the afternoon I stood outside my hotel and talked about American and Kenyan politics with a very well informed guy who in an ideal world would sell me a safari. He spoke freely and thoughtfully about the last several months. He was opinionated without being polarized, hopeful without being naïve. If the American citizenry were as engaged and levelheaded as he, we’d be in good shape.

In the evening I asked the reception desk if I really needed a taxi to go two blocks away for dinner.

“At night?” he asked. “Oh yes. After 7pm you need to take a taxi there, and when you are done take a taxi back.”

But there was a restaurant literally around the corner and it was decided I could walk there since on one side of the corner there was a parking guard and on the other side there were four ATM guards for each of the banks on that street.

“If someone attacks you the guard will shout,” I was reassured.

“Can you walk in the city after dark?” I asked my politically aware friend.

“Oh yes, I walk all around the city at any time. But because you are white they think you have a lot of dollars.”

Nairobi isn’t a perfect city. But the headlines of the last four months have been the story of dangers and casualties suffered by the Kenyan people. The threats to tourists appear no different now than they’ve long been.

So I’ll do what the immigration official, and safari seller and front desk clerk have all asked me to do. I’ll tell you to come to Kenya.

Friday, April 25, 2008

From the Lagos departure gates

I’m counting Nigeria.

That means I’ve been to 41 countries; since I’m counting. Some folks wouldn’t count Nigeria since I’ve been here less than seven hours and am already at the airport to leave. But this place has made more of an impression in a single morning than many of the other 40 did in weeks.

I woke in Cotonou, Benin today after an 18-hour bus ride from Niamey, Niger yesterday. I came through Benin instead of going straight from Niger to Nigeria because the bus was more direct and everyone in West Africa had told me to avoid Nigeria.

Intrepid George came here once. On the way from the airport to the city they were stopped by some cops, compelled to hand over all their money and chose to return to the airport and board the next available flight.

Robberies and kidnappings are a way of life, I was warned.

But everyone at the border was so friendly I began to wonder what I’d be missing if I pulled a George and took the first flight out. Strictly speaking I have 48 hours until I must board a plane to Kenya to meet Jill and Africa’s aversion to credit cards made booking the essential ticket impossible so it was still TBD whether I’d fly today, tomorrow, or Sunday.

The Nigeria of lore arrived when we tried to leave the border. There were five of us in a sedan headed for Lagos. We pulled out as our driver refused to pay a parking “tax” and proceeded 50 of 60 feet before someone in a uniform halted us and asked to see our passports. We showed him, the driver gave him a fist full of bills from his stash under the steering wheel and we went on our way.

It was another 50 feet or so before two other green-clad guards attempted to stop us. Our driver resisted, lost the battle of screaming wills, and pulled over again.

The guard took my passport, asked where I was going (“Lagos”), how long I was staying (“Just flying to Kenya”), questioned if I had a transit visa (“No, no, full visa”), asked who I was visiting in Lagos (“No one, just a tourist by myself”) and eventually turned his attention to a man in the back seat from Burkina Faso who didn’t have a passport or enough money for a bribe and was detained there at the border.

The rest of us drove on as the driver lamented that this was the first time he’d left someone at the border. We evaded some other “guards,” most dressed in t-shirts with no professional identification except a trademark wooden stick to jab at approaching windshields.

It isn’t like checkpoints in other places where every car stops. Here less than a third of vehicles stop, but because there are so many “check-points” (50 maybe) you’re always being pulled over to donate a fist full of naira to the man with the stick.

We unloaded the trunk a couple times for customs checks (only one bag of rice allowed) and they asked what was in my bag (just luggage, no professional video equipment here; look, some books).

The most awe-inspiring interview came a couple miles down the road at maybe our 10th stop. The guard took a special interest in me and surveyed my passport with great care. He found no fault in my Nigerian visa but asked something I’ve never heard before.

“Where is your visa for Benin?” he asked.

I showed him the Visa Entente, which granted me entry to five countries including Benin.

“No, this is for Burkina, where is the visa for Benin.”

I explained it was for the whole group of countries.

“Where are you going in Nigeria?”

Lagos

“What will you see in Lagos?”

Well, I’m staying at the Ritz hotel.

“But where will you go? Do you have a map?”

Yes.

“Let me see your map.”

I pulled out my Lonely Planet and showed him not one, but three depictions of the Nigerian capital.

“Okay,” he said and waved us on.

There was a man with a very stern look who stepped into traffic in a white uniform and directed us to the side of the road. Our driver waited for the car infront of us to pull away and then darted around the guard and down the road. He disregarded the guards quite often.

“They are very lazy,” the driver said. “If they run and catch you, you pay 5000 or 10,000 but they don’t come.” We had pulled to a stop at another checkpoint a few hundred feet down the road but the disregarded guard was busy with someone else already.

“Whatever job I do, I do it to help other people,” the woman in the back said. “These people are no good.”

I asked the driver it was always like this and he just laughed. We finally stopped on the outskirts of Lagos and I had 120 naira in my pocket, about $1. Supposedly the banks don’t change money or have ATMs. I decided I’d go to the airport and leave if I could.

The driver tried to help me find a way to the airport and when a taxi-van pulled up shouting “airport, airport” he made sure I didn’t get in it. I tried to get in it because it was only 80 naira and I didn’t have enough for a proper cab. But he pointed out it was all men in the van, which was true enough, and they would surely drive me somewhere where they could take everything I have.

“They are robbers,” he said until I believed him.

I paid a moto driver with ten American dollars I had in my pocket when I boarded the plane in New York. I had plenty of $100 bills with me for times when there weren’t ATMs but I brought small bills too for no specific reason I could imagine. But it was very good to have that money today.

Karen at the Kenyan Airways office at the airport got me a ticket to Nairobi for tonight. She couldn’t take my credit card but she took all the money I removed from the sole of my right shoe and from my shaving bag and got me out of Nigeria without a scratch.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

To the village and back

George told me not to bring the sleeping pad or water jug or English language translator I had arranged; he would take care of everything. In fairness, he agreed not to bring any prostitutes so it was probably an even trade.

We took off Thursday on short notice and teetered into the bush in his beat up Toyota with the flatbed enclosed with canvass and rope. I rode shotgun and the translator and George’s young, poorly treated assistant crammed in the back seat with the water and ammunition.

After a few bumpy hours we reached a sizable village and met the regional chief. He and George are good friends and George presented him with some fruit and retrieved his gun. As we sat outside the chief’s small mud palace, George explained our hope to film in a certain village with water problems. The chief said the village we wanted to visit was out of his dominion but he would take us to one of his own villages with the same problem.

It was pointless to argue but I did a little anyway.

We ended up sleeping in the main village on a concrete slab outside a seemingly abandoned home where the chief may have lived before he became chief two decades ago at 28.

After forever our dinner arrived and the chief sat with us while we ate. Whenever George eats anything he makes loud noises of extreme culinary pleasure punctuated with exclamations about the quality of the food. It gave me some insight into what I would have heard if we had actually brought the girls.

We set up mosquito nets and I said I might as well sleep on the sand since the concrete was hard and George hadn’t let me bring my pad. “I thought you said you had another pad,” George said. He gave me a spare pad which didn’t hurt at all or help nearly enough.

Breakfast was served with the chief’s compliments around 7am and then we headed out towards the dry, sparse, remote expanses of perhaps the world’s poorest country.

As we rode through town people noticed the chief in our car and bowed with interlocked hands as he passed. As we rolled out of town George spotted some birds, grabbed his gun from the back and shot five of them without leaving his seat. George’s emaciated dog chased aimlessly after an injured bird.

“He can’t catch anything,” Brahim, the translator, said with a laugh.

George slit the birds’ throats but blood only oozed from the neck of the living, injured one that had careened into a fence and been retrieved by a neighborhood boy while the dog ran in circles.

We reached the targeted village around 10am. It lacks not just water but power and transportation (other than a few donkeys) and when we emerged from the Toyota all 150 residents made a semi-circle to greet the chief and his two white visitors.

The local village chief sat with the three of us as the regional chief explained how the white guy with George was a journalist. He would show people the village’s water problem and hopefully that would lead to someone building a well for them.

George and the chief drove off to buy eggs a few hours away and Brahim and I looked around town for the proper subject.

I ultimately chose a woman with a very nice smile and three adorable kids. I had followed her and others to the well, which was supposed to be six miles away and was actually two. Two miles is still pretty far.

This was all just a getting-to-know-you day. I woke up the next morning at dawn and started shooting.

There is no one I know harder to engaged on camera than poor, rural, uneducated, Muslim women; though I’m certain you could remove any of those four adjectives without lessoning the challenge.

Isha was the hardest interview I’ve ever attempted and the first to include an in-interview breast-feeding. The average length of her answers was less than five words. But the interview (which is just a small part of the overall shoot) was very well lit and had one moment of serendipity as she discussed the quality of the water she retrieves and showed a murky bucket of it next to her, all while feeding some of it to her infant son who, as if on-cue, spit it out and grimaced.

Things ended pretty badly with Isha. The shoot was sunk when her mom convinced her not to make the daily trip to the well even though we had decided to follow her because she said she would be going. The mom dropped endless hints that she would like gifts but never actually asked for one. I decided to pack my journalistic ethics for the trip to Africa and not pay for interviews, though this policy can be morally confused when the requested sums are so small and ABC and NBC recently offered six-figures to none other than Paris Hilton if she would sit down with them.

Without batteries to shoot another day (or electricity to charge them) returning to Niamey was our only option. You could make excuses, assign blame, or extrapolate the meaning of the wasted day forever but I think that would be pretty useless.

We drove back with the kind of exhaustion and crankiness I’ve only encountered from severe heat and dehydration. And, I suppose, a lot of wasted effort. It wasn’t lost on me that my exertion was roughly equivalent to the villagers. Except I didn’t carry 100 pounds of water two miles. And after two days I got back in the Toyota.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Our man in Niger

George moved to Niger from Lebanon when the fighting got bad there. He chose Niger because his cousin was already here; lots of Lebanese have moved to West Africa actually. The plan is to wait out the unrest at home for a few years and then return. Niger seemed a better bet than the U.S. or Australia because going to those more developed countries might mean never going home.

And so George has been in Niger for the last 32 years and I found him in his living room this afternoon.

The documentary I’m making will focus on the lives of several Africans and when it’s done I think the first question at most Q&As will be: How did you meet the people in the film? Maybe I’ll explain how George drove me 200 miles to a remote village where we camped for three nights to shoot with a certain woman but that won’t really explain the long and winding road of finding the subject in Niger who I haven’t yet found.

It started when I met Boudouin at a guesthouse in Burkina Faso. He’s a very kind and well placed EU official who brought me to his house here in Niamey this afternoon for the best meal I’ve had in all of Africa. Before that though we sat in his office and after some pleasantries he said, “So you want to meet a woman who walks a long way for water?”

Then he drove me to George’s house and George said I should come back later to chat some more.

I walked over to his house at 6:30, just before sunset and he invited me in. His wife looks like a younger copy of the grandmother and aunts I remember from my childhood, Lebanese women growing old in the diaspora.

George is Christian and he said that made it even more impossible to move back to Lebanon. He sympathizes with Israel and America in their battles with Islamic “fanatics.” They shoot missiles into Israel from schools and then blame Israel for killing children when they return fire, he said.

One of the big challenges filming in small villages is finding an English translator. George was brainstorming possibilities and suggested it would be better to have a female translator. That seemed reasonable enough since we’ll be following a woman.

“That way they can cook for us,” George said. “And help us out.”

It was dusky when we left his house for a little drive around town. He picked up mail from the post office and bought 15 pounds of mangoes for $4 after some intense bargaining that included adding extra mangoes to the bowl because the “scale is no good.”

Every week or so George drives out into the country to hunt duck and other birds and the plan is to hitch a ride with him this weekend to a village he knows with extreme water problems. We’ll camp out there for three nights in the hopes of shooting some video and ducks.

In the post office parking lot George—whose actual name isn’t George—made a call on his cellphone and spoke in French for a few minutes. I could tell it was about an English-Djerma translator.

“We can have two girls come with us,” he said. “One will speak good English and Djerma. She will call back in an hour but we have to see if they are pretty. And we’ll have to negotiate.”

I expressed some doubts about the plan.

“Are you afraid of AIDS?” he wondered.

Not wanting to resort to moral nitpicking I tried another tack.

“When I’m working I like to just focus on work,” I said.

“You work in the day. At night you can stop working and have fun with the girls.”

As we pulled into the driveway, George explained these were issues best resolved outside the home. An hour later, as we awaited the call-back, we were sitting in the living room singing French hymns with a missionary couple who had brought a guitar and ten hymn books. I never heard the phone ring.

George’s wife and five children were there too. His daughter was unspeakably young and unfortunately attractive and seemed to be looking at me a lot. I reckoned there was a good chance I’d be encountering her leg when we moved to the dinner table. The spectacle of the cheating husband and flirting teen singing their hymns was so deliciously absurd that I couldn’t withhold a constant grin which I hoped to pass off as the power of the Lord.

After the singing we had dinner, including some recently felled duck, and I ended up sitting next to the daughter. She was exceedingly attentive filling my plate but kept her feet to herself.

There was a Nigerian guy there fixing the satellite and he said I must not like the French language if I’d been in West Africa for two months and not tried to learn it. He’s never been to America but he can speak some English.

George decided he could be our translator but the cable man said he needed to be in church Sunday so it wouldn’t work.

The whole clan walked me down the block to my hotel and I told George I’d work on finding a translator tomorrow.

“Oh no, this guy will do it,” he said.

“Be he has to go to church.”

“I will talk to him. He will do it. But really, it would be better if we have a couple girls come with us.”

Say a prayer for me this weekend.

Monday, April 14, 2008

An Africa Ramble


I want to see what I think of Africa at the two-month mark but that’s an awful big topic to sort through in any organized way.

I guess I’ll start with the three-year old boy at the Grand Marche here in Parakou, Benin. He got my attention as I stood there sipping some bisap at the entrance to the market. His sister didn’t like me and cried when her mom was goaded into bringing her near me by a friend.

But the boy smiled and shouted and finally tried to walk around some stuff on the ground to see me. He couldn’t really put weight on his left leg though so he stumbled and fell before finally making it over to give me a high five.

He was naked and malnourished to be sure. The oozing scrape on his ankle wasn’t big but it was clear by his walk that it hurt something fierce.

I don’t think I’ve ever given money to a beggar anywhere in the world but I very much wanted to find some Triple Antibiotic Ointment for the boy, though not enough to actually do it, if it was at all possible, which I didn’t do much to investigate.

But that’s not a story that typifies my two months here because I haven’t found the “give money to save Africa” version of the continent we see in the aid-driven media coverage common in the west. (I understand they recently aired the annual “Idol Gives Back” episode, which last year included an incredibly long segment about a trip to “Africa” which must have been shot in an actual village in an actual country but instead pretended everywhere on the continent is known simply as “Africa”).

People’s lives here are certainly simple, basic, and sometimes hard. But they are for most Asians and South Americans too.

Africa does not look like the refugee camps photographers favor or the national parks National Geographic spends its time in. But many of the villages do look like you probably imagine them, with thatched roofs and colorfully dressed women carrying things on their heads; these are the places Bono and Simon bring their cameras and I’ve brought mine too. The cities are acrid and polluted without being all that crowded. Its like a few rambunctious kids made a mess you’d expect three times as many people to be responsible for.

The people are friendly and most resist what must be a significant temptation to try to get something material from the exchange.

At the market today, two minutes before I met the boy, I did something that is becoming a growing source of personal amusement. It’s when two white people (me being one of them) ignore each other as we pass on the street.

My partner was a 20-year old girl with a nose ring and an African skirt. We glanced at eachother very briefly and then I walked by as if there was no basis for connection, as if I hadn’t noticed that she were white.

I wanted to say she was the only white person I saw today but when I started really paying attention I saw two more; an early-20’s guy who must work for the Peace Corp because those are the only people who wear motorcycle helmets, and a middle-aged guy who gets very red when he’s in the sun too long.

When you walk into a four-star hotel it appears for a minute that all the white people have been kidnapped and held at the shady tables surrounding the pool where they sip Flag beer and await their release.

Traveling in Africa isn’t especially fun. I’m not partying or seeing lots of natural wonders or sampling amazing food or wine. I first noticed in India that you can have no fun at all and still be having the best part of your trip. Africa is a bit like India but without the Taj Mahal or the great food, which is no small deduction. Africa lacks India’s non-stop touting though, which is no small plus. They tie on mangoes.

There are some people who leave home for the first time and land in Dakar or Nairobi or Johannesburg. I’ve met a few of them. But more often travelers come to Africa because they’ve seen a lot of the rest of the world and it’s not that exciting anymore. When you’re not challenged by a 5K it may be time to try a marathon and Africa offers that chance.

I was thinking the other day about a solo cross-country drive I attempted in college. My car broke down and never, ever left Pittsburgh and I was a teary mess. I felt that I had been stranded at the end of the world somewhere off I-80.

I didn’t know the only important secret to being away from home: That being in an unfamiliar place doesn’t mean you’re unsafe, that whatever the problem it will work itself out.

So when the eleven-hour bus dropped me in Niamey, Niger I refused the taxi offering a ride for $7 and found one for $3.50. He took me to the Cathedrale which should have had rooms but didn’t so I got another taxi for $.50 and he drove me in circles for two hours complaining to other passengers that I gave him bad directions to the Chez Tatayi.

It is not a little frustrating to not speak French in West Africa. But I can put up with a lot of frustration. After two hours we finally arrived at the appointed intersection and the Chez Tatayi wasn’t there but his friend on a motorbike led us to its new location and I took the bottom bed in a cool dorm room.

On Tuesday I was in Bonou, Benin a small village with thatched huts and colorfully dressed women. I was shooting at a new school there and the administrators and I sat outside for introductions and questions.

I was there to ask how they had built a bank, health center and school without much help from outside aid organizations and they told me. But they were more interested in what I was doing traveling around alone.

I get that question a lot, especially in the third world where the mental calculations of costs and lost wages reliably express themselves in questions about what my parents do or, more directly, how much its all costing me.

But the folks in Bonou had an entirely different line of questioning. They wanted to know how such a young man was confident enough to travel alone so far from home. “What is your secret, what is the lesson we can learn about this bravery,” they asked.

I explained, honestly, that there was no bravery needed after the first day of going away. Because you learn very quickly that wherever you go there are people to help you. We sat there in a circle and I was not alone and the secret was them.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Up and down Benin

Benin is a tall, narrow country. Its skinny enough that as I headed out of the coastal capital this morning a sign said the road we were on leads to three different countries; Togo, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Nigeria is an hour or so east.

I was heading back up Benin after coming all the way down five days ago and both trips are worth a mention.

I balked at the six o’clock bus this morning and instead shot for the nine o’clock. A moto bike delivered me to the bus “station”—a parked bus on a side street—at 8:30am and we learned there was no nine o’clock. The next bus to Parakou would depart at noon. Not wanting to spend the whole day getting to northern Benin I looked for another option and found what the kids call a “bush-taxi.”

The seven-seat van had sheetrock strapped to the roof and gasoline piled onto the seats. There must have been 200 gallons of gas in those plastic yellow containers. It had been driven in from Nigeria where the gas is cheap and now it was heading up north.

I grabbed a roll of sweet bread for the road, indulged in a bowl of sweet millet and fried dough, and finally sat in the front passenger seat to head up to Parakou. We were waiting for a Nigerian to change money in the market and I sat there listening to Jill’s IPod, which works in one ear.

Eight-thirty became 9:30am and I got a little impatient. Just before 10am I got out of the van and said I needed to get going. The guy was getting customs forms for the sheetrock, I was told.

“He’ll be back in five minutes,” his friend said.

“I’ll wait ten and then I’m going,” I said.

Seven minutes later he returned but we still weren’t driving north so I pulled my bags out of the van and next thing I knew we were finally taking off.

There were two old women in the middle seats and a guy lying down in the back because all the foot space was taken by gas.

We left right at 10am and went steadily for 20 or 25 minutes before stopping, ironically, for gas. No one goes to gas stations in Benin. They just stop their car on the side of the road, which is almost literally lined with people selling gas their friend drove in from Nigeria.

We went steadily again for another 45 minutes before breaking down. The driver flipped up the console between us and there was the engine all hot and dirty. I grabbed a Coke down the street and asked to use the toilette. I was shown to a room that smelled strongly of ammonia and didn’t have a hole. It was quite confusing.

By noon we were back on the road and by 12:45 we were broken down again. It didn’t feel like we were stopped for the next hour and a half but in fact we were. I had a small, lousy papaya and a fine coconut for lunch. It’s tacky to mention they were $.22 each but they were.

We drove for two solid hours after that but I was sleeping until we pulled over again. It was just after 4pm, nearly eight hours after I took my seat for the five-hour trip.


But we got going again after that and the driver said in his passable English that if we made it to Parakou he was getting that overheating part of the engine replaced for a third time.

We got into town exactly 12 hours after I bought that sweetbread and I went ahead and got a $30 room in the hotel Lonely Planet recommends. It’s a “fine hotel” as the man at the desk promised and my room even has a patio with the air conditioner from another room jutting out. It would be another $25 to condition the air of my room so I just opened the door to the cool hallway to let some of that air in. It’s been interesting to consider tonight that I may not need to stay in the cheapest places all the time now and its unlikely I’ll meet travelers wherever I stay anyway.

---


I’ll now quickly tell you how I rode from Burkina Faso to Benin five days ago. The nice bus line’s weekly departure was sold out so I went for a second rate outfit and turned up at 4:30am for the 5am bus. We left at 6am which almost seemed like leaving early and I had a great window seat just behind the driver.

The key difference between the “nice” bus and ours is that the nice bus has four seats across and ours had five. The width of the seats was significantly less than the widths of our shoulders so we couldn’t all sit up at once. The three of us in seats 4, 5, and 6 worked as a team, with the guy in the middle leaning forward most of the time, which was quite nice of him. The only other place I remember a five-across bus was in India but that ride was only three hours.

We made it to the Burkina/Benin border in short order and they took all our passports and we waited under a tree where people tried to sell us stuff to eat. Then they called out our names so we could retrieve our passports or ID card. I saw the guard had an American passport and walked up to grab it before he said my name.

“How did you know it was you,” he said with a laugh, surveying the crowd of non-Caucasian faces.

We never broke down or drove at a reasonable speed. We did stop every couple hours so everyone could pee in the field or grab some food. We lost an hour at the border so it was only 15 hours on the bus to Benin even though we left at 6am and arrived at 10pm.

You can cover big distances here with an alarm clock, coolant, and good humor.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Just call me Julie

Sigh. My friend Madi took me to the little market around the corner from his stall this morning. I’ve been eating two or three meals a day at Madi’s stall and we’ve become friends about as much as you can without speaking to eachother.

The market had vegetables and boney, fatty meat. It had whole, frozen fish that the woman would hack into small filets. Then she’d trim away the small, sharp bones near the tail and put the pieces in a black plastic bag.

Madi knew most everyone at the market and said hello and showed me off, I thought. It was mostly women working there and I thought about how uncool it would be to shoot video but how good the video would be.

Madi said he was cooking rice for his customers at lunch but would make me a gelatinous pancake made of some other grain. He pushed me to get meat for it but I said the fish would be fine and anyway he was the cook.

I dropped Madi at his stand and walked to the gas station to get water before going home. It was then that a couple guys contemplated mugging me. One was a familiar face who had followed me around town now and again and given me a ride on his friend’s broken motorbike a couple days ago. I paid him more than a taxi would have been and he protested that I’m white and need to pay more.

Now he informed me he is a guide who took me to a cybercafe and Madi’s restaurant and must be rewarded. I went to Madi’s restaurant the day before I met you, I said.

It was around 11am and he and his older, pudgier friend smelled strongly of booze. They followed me into the grounds of the cathedral, which was a first, and clearly wanted me to stop to talk but I said they could come walk with me if they wanted. When we got close the convent they started elbowing me a little as we walked and when we got to the convent they said when I came back out at night they would mug me.

I don’t understand French so they pantomimed grabbing someone’s arm and punching them. There was an overmatched, under-interested guard a few feet away and I told him to regard these two men who said they would assault me.

There’s no problem, the bandits said. Anyway, I offered to take them to lunch at Madi’s at 1pm and they seemed appeased.

I came out of the convent a little before 1pm and my friends were waiting just outside to tell me Madi’s food was no good and we needed to go to this other place down an empty street. I said I’d be right back and walked back inside the convent and stayed there. I’d have to stand up Madi, and that’s what I felt worst about.

I packed my bag and hitched a ride out of Dodge in the Jeep of a woman who was teaching a training class just below my room. Then I took a taxi to a community theater where Julie works.

Julie is a French-Canadian volunteering at the theater for a few months. I met her in Bobo last week and she introduced me to Saly, the Burkinabe woman I followed yesterday for my documentary.

Julie was quick to blame the victim for the whole thing but I’m sure she meant no harm. Sometime later when I was settled into my new room at the theater we got to talking about what may be the real point of this story.

Julie hates how everyone calls after her when she walks around her neighborhood, here on the edge of Ouagadougou. They call her variations of “whitey” which she thinks must be racist, or something close to racist. She’s been here three months now but not even the Burkina sun can stop her from being white.

She wants to tell them, she said, “I’m not just a white girl. I have a name. Just call me Julie.”

I told Julie I thought we were bringing our western ideas of race-relations to a situation where they didn’t belong. The word “whitey” isn’t as historically loaded here as “blacky” would be in the U.S.

But Julie pointed out that even though this is a mono-racial society there is a history of white people being here and doing bad things. “When they call me ‘whitey’ I feel like they’re saying I’m one of the colonizers.”

The fact is we stand out here. But I’m also an obvious outsider on the streets of Bangkok, or for that matter Stockholm. And here in Africa I’ve been struck by how rarely I’m stared at; especially since on the one or two occasions each day I see another white person I give a good look.

But lunch today told you all you needed to know about my time in Burkina. In a foodstall on Avenue de la Cathedrale a guy sat waiting to serve a meal he’d prepared just for me. But I was blocked from going by a drunk bandit and his friend who resented my money and identified me by my skin.

At night I took a taxi back to the center to meet some partying Peace Corp volunteers at an air-conditioned wine bar. I had the taxi stop en route so I could say goodbye to Madi and take a picture of him and get his e-mail address. He seemed pretty sullen about my run-in with the bandits. At the wine bar one of the volunteers went outside and was mugged for his cellphone so everyone was careful getting home. I took a midnight taxi home and on the way found Avenue de la Cathedrale barren but for one man scrubbing pots under a streetlight in one of Africa’s safest capitals.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Beating the Heat

I was thinking today how everywhere I’ve lived if the temperature reached 105 it would be the top story on the news. There would be shuttle buses for old people, runs on air conditioners, extended hours at community pools.

I don’t know what today’s high was but someone mentioned at lunch today that yesterday was 110. It didn’t feel much different than it has each day these last weeks but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel hot.

I’ve adopted the hot-weather lifestyle of early rising and lazy afternoons, building a schedule around beating the heat.

My next stop is Benin but I don’t have a visa and they don’t have an embassy here so I tried to get creative this morning before it got too hot. Just after 8am I walked from the western side of Ouagadougou to the east, eventually stumbling on the Ambassade de Côit d’Ivoire (which recently I would have called the Ivory Coast Embassy). Benin and Côit d’Ivoire are two of five west African nations which issue a visa that is good in all five; I thought I could game the system and get this group visa to use in Benin.

I’m not actually going to Côit d’Ivoire. Best I can tell, no one in their right mind is going to the war-battered country.

The consular section of the embassy was a predictably empty place and while there was no wait to reach the window there was a short wait for the woman behind it to finish her cell phone call. She couldn’t give me the regional visa but she said the Burkina national police could back in town.

The nice thing about walking back into town was the sun was at my back instead of in my eyes. It was a straight shot on the map but the road back to town was blocked. I looked at my map to confirm my assumption: the barricaded street was home to the U.S. Embassy.

It was on this continent, of course, where two American Embassies were bombed and the threats to U.S. Officialdom are real. But it’s still profoundly sad to me that the places where we represent ourselves abroad resemble military bases. It’s less noticeable in the shadow of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, or the other rich, often-fortified cities of the first world. But in Africa the contrast is more imposing and ostentatious. They certainly don’t need to fly a flag to make clear who owns the fancy fortress in the leafy section of town.

Even the leafy section was hot by 10am as I navigated around Avenue de John F Kennedy. Maybe it felt hotter because of those five minutes in the climate-controlled bliss of the Ambassade de Côit d’Ivoire. Working at that embassy must be strange. I wanted to ask the woman behind the desk what it was like and have her answer honestly. I wanted her to tell me she was happy to be out of Côit d’Ivoire and working in a good paying, air-conditioned job. I wanted her to tell me how she didn’t feel guilty that people back home were starving or fleeing because it was hard for her too, or whatever.

Embassy row is a funny place in the third-world. And the Land Cruisers and the swimming pools are all a little obscene. And the white people and the expensive restaurants and the NGO headquarters. It’s a little patronizing and obscene.

But after a couple months slumming it in food stalls and 100-degree guesthouses I can see the appeal. I can see why the aid workers and diplomats would make a nest within that bubble of wealth and air-conditioning. I can see why the Africans who are given the chance would live there too. I don’t imagine it increases the chances of any of them helping the poor people but maybe turning off their air-conditioners wouldn’t help either.

The biggest difference isn’t in the way people live in the third-world vs the first world; it’s in the proportion. If you split the richest 95% of Americans from the poorest 5%, you’d get a decent approximation of the differences between the richest 1% here and the rest. Whatever the breakdown, it seems uncommon for that group of winners to make a priority of helping out the losers.

It was legitimately hot by 11am in the world’s third-poorest country and the police office didn’t have a visa for me but they told me who did. I walked another mile back west and found an office with a sign on the door advertising one visa for five countries. I filled out the form and gave them my $65.

I walked back towards home and told Madi about my five-mile adventure. “You should have taken my bike,” he said. “It’s too hot for all that walking”

His vat of lunch was empty so he cut up a potato, an onion and an avocado. He fried them with an egg and Maggi seasoning and insisted on running out for some frozen bisap. He retuned with the sweet bisap and tried to speak to me in French and truly wouldn’t have cared if I repeated my performance from last night and forgot to pay.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Dinner on the walk home

Madi was eating dinner behind his table tonight after a day of serving others. Avenue de la Cathedrale was nearly empty, with cars and motorbikes passing but the stalls on either side shuttered. The inkjet printers and used computer cables would go back on sale tomorrow.

Only Madi was there, with his giant tin drum of riz all but empty. I walked up and made some noises to indicate, “I would like dinner, do you still have any?” It was 9:30 and only the proprietor was eating.

I looked under the lids and there wasn’t much left. He asked if I was hungry and I said yes and he asked me something else I didn’t understand. Then he walked back to his little booth and pulled out an egg. “Avec pan?”

I said sure. First though he scraped what was left of his rice, sauce, fish and other sauce and handed it to me in one of those shallow green plastic bowls with the tie-tied yellow stripes. “This will be fine,” I conveyed somehow.

Madi must be in his mid-20s and he wasn’t especially deterred by my complete inability to speak French. Finally, I communicated my hometown and current place of residence.

“I’ve seen you walking back and forth on this street,” he said using words and gestures I understood.

“La blanche,” I said, because I am indeed white and that was why he recognized me.

Madi wrote his name on a piece of paper because I thought he was saying “midi” which means half or noon or something. I wrote my name on the paper too and said I couldn’t come back for breakfast because I was meeting a friend but I would come back for lunch or half or noon or something.

Some people stopped by on their motorbikes to say hello or learn that all the food was gone and I picked out the bones from the piece of fish and dropped them on the bricks below the short, wooden bench we were sitting on.

When I said I spoke a little Spanish Madi grabbed a cookbook from his stall and flipped through the Spanish and French recipes so I could pronounce them in Spanish. He took out a notebook with names and addresses from Germany and France. He didn’t ask but I tried to tell him what Aix-en-Provence is like.

The notebook was also a photo album with a dozen 5x7s taken last year on an old film camera. In most of them Madi is in his stall cooking and smiling. Or he’s posing in front of different parts of the city or in formal clothes, maybe as part of a graduation. There was one of his two sisters posing around a new, small TV that I found strangely, powerfully heartbreaking.

Madi would have talked all night but I finally got up and asked how much. He charged me a little less than $.50. I asked if the mangoes on the table were for sale and he nodded but when I asked how much they were he refused the money. I put 12 cents on the bench and then, reconsidering, doubled it.

Under the dim, yellow-orange streetlights I walked close to the traffic along Avenue de la Cathedrale, so I could jump into the road if someone tried to mug me. I had my laptop in my bag which I could sell and eat all my meals at Madi’s stall for five years.

But no one bothered so I turned into the courtyard of the cathedral complex and walked towards my room in the convent. I’m alone now because the boys from The World by Road wanted to push on towards the south of Africa. They left too soon to meet Madi.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Rote Man of Bobo-Dioulasso


In the center of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso there’s a dense, busy market with food and cloth and auto parts. The market is ringed by hundreds of motorbikes and more vendors and I was walking along one of those streets when a young guy came up to me and offered me something in French which I of course didn’t understand. I finally shook his hand, thanked him for stopping by, and went on my way.

I kept walking towards where I hoped the Grand Mosque was as the sun sank behind the market. There was the noise of motorbikes and vendors and friends along the very busy street and it took me quite a while, I think, to realize the Rote Man of Bobo-Dioulasso was walking along side me.

When I finally glanced to my left I saw him walking step for step with me, speaking French I didn’t understand. I must have betrayed myself somehow because after a glance and a grunt the Rote Man began speaking English.

“The first day of 1987 is Thursday, January 1. The last day of January is Saturday, January 31, 1987. There are 31 days in January.”

He continued to outline some facets of a 21-year-old calendar before switching to an exploration of regional travel.

“Regina leaves Bamako at 3pm on Thursday and arrives in Ouagadougou on Friday. Jeremy leaves one hour later from Dakar…”

I thought there would be multiple-choice options at the end but the Rote Man forged on with something else.

“Do you want to take a break?” I finally asked him after he had followed me down a small alley towards what I hoped was the mosque.

“No,” he said and kept going.

The Rote Man was an asset of sorts because he appeared to be guiding me around the mosque, which helped keep the other potential “guides” at bay.

After a couple months in countries where you don’t speak the language you get very good at non-verbal communication but I couldn’t pick up any more meaning from the rest of the Rote Man than I could from his empty words. His eyes were glassy and expressionless, his walk steady, his body a bit rigid or nervous.

His catalogue seemed well-known and sometimes a passing countryman would mouth a sentence of the monologue as we passed, like joining a nursery rhyme. It was amazing how much he had memorized, it went on for more than 15 minutes with no sign of exhaustion.

I paused to take a couple pictures of the mosque and waited for the Rote Man to pause between stories for a few fractions of a second.

“Stop,” I said. “Can you understand English or only speak it?”

“I can understand.”

“Why do you speak like this?”

“We need the white people to practice speaking. I study for third years.”

“Yes, but to practice you must speak to me, not just say these things.”

“What is your name?”

“My name is Brook, what is your name?”

He told me his name, which I don’t remember, and smiled as he extended his hand.

“Thank you, Mr. Brook,” he said, and walked away having offered little and asked for less.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Night in Africa

A lot of the nights in Africa are like this one. We’ve set up camp off the side of a bumpy road. We pulled out the tent and the table as the sun set after ten hours and 700 kilometers of driving. I put together the two long, copper-colored tent poles and the two smaller orange ones and assembled our big orange and grey home.

Steve and Mark chopped up veggies and made dinner. The moon is full tonight so there wasn’t much wrestling over headlamps. Our campsite is sandy farmland or pastureland. There are plowed ridges of soil and much evidence of passing cattle. There are wide-branched trees every couple hundred feet. Some are full of leaves and most aren’t. Some cows passed just before dinner but no people.

We started in Timbuktu this morning and took a ferry across that river to the very bumpy road south. After four shaken hours we found lunch in Douentza—rice and a brown, greasy sauce with a couple potatoes and a little beef mixed in.

We kept going south and east towards Burkina Faso, which is its own country. I may or may not have known that a few months ago but now I can trace the route we’ve taken from Morocco to Mauritania to Senegal to Mali and tell you something real and unimportant about each place.

After dinner we went back into the trucks—as if we hadn’t spent long enough in them yet—and Mark and Bouey typed away. I read a copy of the Economist that a guy sold me in Bamako for $7 a few days ago. I read about Hugo Chavez and NAFTA and India. They never write much about Africa, not even in the Economist.

Steve has gone to bed in his little, personal tent and now Bouey has gone to bed too. It’s ten o’clock. There’s a rustle to my left. It’s half a dozen cows stomping around under the big tree with the interesting branches that I shot a few hours ago as the moon rose up behind it. Hopefully they won’t eat the cigarettes or bug repellant we left out. I guess I’ll put them in the truck to be safe and go to bed too. The battery of my laptop is drying and the air is wonderfully cool after another very hot, dusty day.

Tomorrow the fuzzy red orbs on the tree above our tent will fall as the sun rises. They’ll splash a cool, clear liquid on our sleeping bags and faces that when we wake will have solidified like wax. We’ll cross some modest shacks marking the Mali/Burkina border as our African odometer clicks past 5000 miles.