After seven years on Facebook and Twitter, it’s increasingly clear that they fill a need without satisfying it, and that time is too short and there’s too much to do.
Archive for the Africa Category
The sounds of the city grow faint. The air smells of pine, and the wind whispers through the branches. The Alaska Pacific University Trail is rough with rocks, and Marko Cheseto struggles for balance as he runs. Looking for even patches in the dirt, he chooses his steps carefully. Each one is a decision. Once, when he had feet, he flew through these woods. He flew through them faster than anyone ever had.
Cheseto, 30, remembers how things once felt beneath those feet: the light touch of the track, the roll of the trails, the give of the red earth he grew up running on. He remembers how far those feet carried him—from a tiny village in the Kenyan Highlands across the world to Alaska and a new life as a star runner. He remembers how they propelled him to victory. Sometimes, he forgets he doesn’t have those feet anymore.
Cheseto has run this trail countless times since arriving at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2008. It was through these woods that he pushed himself and his teammates and helped forge the Seawolves into a national force. And it was here that he took that last run, the one that transformed him from the greatest runner the school had ever known into… someone else.
From The Rotarian:
“America,” said the exercise in our grammar book, “is the (rich) country in the world.” It was a lesson about the superlative, and the answer was, of course, “richest.” I was teaching English in Tanzania, and it was strange to read such things about my home.
“You are a rich man,” one of my students was fond of telling me, exasperated because I wouldn’t give him the books, pens, pencils, and notebooks he asked for. “But you are a rich man. America is a rich country.” He seemed to take a certain relish in using the word as he rolled the r, drew out the i, and let the ch trail off. “Reech …”
This bothered me. It felt like an accusation. It made me resent something that was larger than myself, something that I had nothing to do with – something that wasn’t my fault.
Why did I get so angry? I spent a lot of time agonizing over that question. It seemed to come from the guilt that many of us feel when we cross a border into a poorer country. After a lifetime of being average, we find ourselves bizarrely privileged. Suddenly we become one of the global elite.
This affects our relationships with the people we meet…
Here’s a slick, bizarre, unintentionally hilarious video promoting the Bridge of The Horns that I wrote about in Nowhere Magazine last year. Is the distance between rhetoric and reality greater than the distance between Djibouti and Yemen? Who knows? Maybe someday “the dream of seeing the future of mankind bathed in light,” will come true after all.
It can be hard, as a writer, to watch your stories slip into the past, particularly the ones you love because there is a piece of you in them. So if I can steal a page from Teju Cole, in a vain attempt to rescue a few from the flow, here are the ones with the most sweat and blood on them, the ones I will miss most from last year:
1) The Crossing (Nowhere Magazine, Djibouti, 5,494 words)
This story is about a tiny, desolate county where humanity took its first steps out into the world, about my traveling to that place, about Bruce Chatwin, about restless genes and ultimately about what pushes us beyond the horizon.
2) The Reunion: After teaching there nearly 15 years ago, a man learns new lessons about change. (Washington Post Magazine, Tanzania, 2,954 words)
A sort of bookend to a piece I did years ago called Test Day, about teaching English in Tanzania. For this story, I went back to Tanzania and caught up with my students to see where life had taken them. I was as surprised as anyone to find out.
3) Inner Space: Clearing Some Room for Inspiration (Poets & Writers Magazine, Portland/Cyberspace, 3,167 words)
This was a story about my own struggle to find a quiet place to let new thoughts be born, and about the nature of creativity.
4) Fall of the Creative Class (Thirty Two Magazine, Madison/Minneapolis, 3,743 Words)
This story caused the biggest waves of any story I’ve ever done, taking aim as it did at Richard Florida’s so-called Creative Class Theory. It even evoked a defensive response from Florida, which I addressed here and here.
5) Time Travel (The Rotarian, Kenya/Tanzania, 1,074 words)
An essay about something that has vexed me all my life: The feeling of time as it unfolds before us, and how the so-called “timescape” differs from place to place and affects us all.
6) A Very Particular Place: Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (The New Republic, Nigeria, 1,109 words)
A look at Noo Saro-Wiwa’s book about Nigeria, and about the aspirations of the diaspora.
7) Notes on the Affairs of Man (World Ark, Kenya, 1,282 words)
A short piece on my struggle to understand how to deal with the many things beyond our control.
Standing on the edge of the Red Sea 60,000 years ago, the first people looked across the water, saw mountains rising above the horizon, and decided to go there. No one knows how they crossed the water, but they did. Somehow, this small band of a few as 150 individuals made their way from Africa to Arabia—from what is now the tiny country of the Djibouti on one side, to the troubled nation of Yemen on the other. After that, they kept going. They followed the shorelines. They went inland. They scaled mountains and crossed plains. They spread out into the world until they filled every corner of it.
They, of course, were us.
Bab al Mandeb is thought to be the place they crossed. It is the “Gate of Tears,” where the Red Sea narrows and the powerful ocean currents have sunk countless ships over the ages. But back when those first people crossed the oceans would have been lower, so instead of seventeen miles of water there would have been just seven, with islands along the way. Today the islands are submerged and the ends of the straight reach out to each other like some continental version of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man” on the Sistine Chapel.
When I first read about this, I looked up the place on a map. The language those people spoke, they clothes they wore, the thoughts they had—those are all gone forever. But the place is still there, and I knew I wanted to go there someday. I wanted to stand where it all began…
One recent morning in Nairobi, Kenya, I was sitting in the ninth-floor lobby of a downtown office building, waiting for the Tanzanian High Commission to issue me a visa. Several Kenyans were also waiting. But the office was as empty as a ghost town.
One man, holding a handful of passports for his clients, chuckled. “They are just taking their tea,” he said. “Tanzanians love their tea!” Another man looked at his watch and shook his head in disgust. Finally, a woman sauntered down the hallway and sat at a desk. After a few minutes, she looked up, took our passports, and told us to come back at 3:30.
In the elevator on the way down, the Kenyans were fuming. “It’s unbelievable,” one of them said. “Those people are so lazy.”
It might have been unbelievable to them, but it wasn’t to me. I had once lived in Tanzania, and one of the most difficult and disorienting things about it was adjusting to Tanzanian notions of time. There, time seemed to expand around events rather than contract to constrain them. Transitions were gentler. The flow was more measured. Things happened in a way that suggested time was not finite, but something of which there was plenty, if you knew the proper way to wait.
Kenya used to be more like that. But Kenya, or at least Nairobi, has changed.
My review over at The New Republic:
NIGERIA HAS AN unsavory, and largely undeserved, reputation in the United States: the home of scammers trying to bilk Grandma out of her life savings. Yet across Africa, Nigerians are also loathed and feared by their neighbors from smaller, more unassuming countries—states without Nigeria’s surplus of bravado. These passionate responses are no doubt partly because Nigeria is itself a place of strong passions. Nigerians—so the conventional wisdom goes—tend to be brash, confident, loud, and warm (the Italians of Africa, you might say), and they have fanned out to every corner of the globe. Surely these overstatements regarding Nigeria’s national character have to do with something fundamental: very little has been written about the country in a straightforward, nonfictional but personal way—which is why the publication of Noo Saro-Wiwa’s new book (the first book of travel writing about Nigeria in a hundred years) is welcome and overdue.
There are few people in the world with reason to have stronger feelings about Nigeria than Saro-Wiwa, the daughter of the Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995 by the dictator Sani Abacha for agitating against pollution and injustice in the Niger Delta.
A few years ago, I was on an assignment in the northern Ugandan city of Gulu, when I stopped at a cafe run by the organization called Invisible Children, now made famous by their Kony 2012 video. The restaurant was sleek place, with wifi and coffee and a bunch of aid workers sitting around in their down time. I thought I might order something, but the prices were beyond my traveler’s budget. It wasn’t a business that seemed viable once the UN and the other NGO’s went away.
That was more or less the extent of my experience with Invisible Children until this year, when the Kony 2012 video was unleashed and we were were deluged with stories not really about the LRA or Joseph Kony, but about the video and its makers. It’s hard to explain what was so maddening about this. After all, weren’t they doing something good? Didn’t they mean well? Wasn’t what they were saying true?
The answer is a highly qualified “yes” to all those. The problem, as others have pointed out better than I can, is that the storyline in the video is tailored to a 200-year-old narrative where Africa is a helpless child that needs help from a Western adult. It’s a narrative that Teju Cole now famously called the White Savior Industrial Complex and it still has the power to move mountains of money, as we saw with the Greg Mortenson affair last year. Mortenson grew up as a missionary in East Africa and studied this fundraising technique well.
One reason for the persistence of this storyline is that it’s embedded in the very idea of culture, which was formalized (in English) with the 1871 publication of Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture, the book that effectively launched the field of anthropology. In it, Tylor outlines his vision of the past, cribbed partly from Darwin and partly from the Bible. He asserted that human beings began in a primal state of nature called “savagery.” As things improved they picked up skills like metallurgy, manufacturing and morals, which marked their transition into “barbarism.” Then in the final stage, they arrived at civilization, which he also called Culture with a capital “C.”
Anthropologists, Tylor wrote, were not supposed to merely study human culture, but to improve it. Their task was to root out the old savage beliefs and replace them with newer and better ones. Civilized ones. “[W]here barbaric hordes groped blindly, cultured men can often move onward with a clear view,” he wrote. “It is [the] office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and to mark these out for destruction.”
This is the soundtrack that plays in the background of Kony 2012.
The problem is that, for those of us who have spent time in different parts of Africa, seeing those places through this frame makes them barely recognizable. It simply doesn’t correspond to the present-day reality, which is far more complex and interesting and human.
Last fall, for example, I was in Nairobi and one of the stories I was working on was about the famine in the Horn of Africa. This was not your typical Africa-as-helpless-victim story, a la Nicholas Kristof. It was about a group of relatively well off Kenyans who were raising money for famine relief in their own country. The people I was writing about were Nairobi-based Rotarians, but they were part of a larger effort called Kenyans for Kenya which raised $8 million to send food relief to the Turkana region of Kenya.
This is all fairly straightforward stuff, to fans of Kony 2012, Kristof and Greg Mortenson, it might seem like something new. I would never have done the story if it had fallen on the Kony 2012/White Savior spectrum, because the point of those stories is never the story itself. As Dinaw Mengestu observed, “the real star of Kony 2012 isn’t Joseph Kony, it’s us.” It’s about the viewer as savior. What I loved about Kenyans for Kenya is that it wasn’t.