Very sad to say goodbye to one of the greatest musicians in one of the greatest musical traditions. Tabu Ley Rochereau, 73, passed away November 30, 2013. Here’s some old footage of him with another of my favorites, his partner Mbilia Bel. (Via Africa is a Country)
Archive for the Africa Category
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.