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