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.


Skip said...


If only I could write as eloquently as you. You capture your experience like no other.

What happened with TWBR? I suppose they had their own marathon to run?


Brook Silva-Braga said...

hey skip, you're much too kind
yeah, TWBR crew needed to speed down Africa to keep their schedule so i split off for the rest of my time here. some friends from new york are meeting me in kenya at the end of the month so i won't be alone much longer and in the meantime i'm meeting some really interesting people.

Nancy said...

B, How lucky for me that i keep learning and reaffirming what i know through you. Your last entry makes me feel faith in the human spirit, has much to do with almost everything. The wise words of my buddy Thich Nhat Hanh: "We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness", never rang more true.Is it possible that the MANGO, above all, may be that tangible connector? a totally silly thought,
but finding comfort in silliness can be useful. Keep the faith. AML, M

Mara D said...

Oh Brook! Flag beer and broken down tro tros and 3-hour delays being nothing at all and sweltering hot hotel rooms! I ache when I think about it all, maybe because I miss it or maybe because the opposite of that. Probably both. It feels like another lifetime. You are very brave to go it alone. I don't know that I could've done it by myself, and what I did was so different from what you are doing.

Queens feels like another galaxy. I am having a party soon, teaching is hard (but could be a lot worse.) Have you been to Ghana yet? Do you know where else you're going? I haven't read everything in the blog yet but I hope to eventually.

Ah! Well, keep up the good work! Please, please be careful. Come home in one piece!


KK said...

Thanks for the secret:)
Very well said.

Michael Deibert said...

This is a beautifully written post, and I simply loved the ending - which is entirely true!