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.
Posted by Brook Silva-Braga