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 na├»ve. 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.