Archive for the Africa Category

Dispatch from Djibouti

Posted in Africa, Clips, Science, Travel on December 11, 2012 by frankbures

water-500x393From my story about Djibouti, a bridge, and why we wander in the new Nowhere Magazine:

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.

148731_10151336792081796_130483487_nBab 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…

Read the rest here.

On Time Travel, Temporal Diversity and How the Timescape Changes Us

Posted in Africa, Clips, Science, Travel on September 10, 2012 by frankbures

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.

Read the rest here.

Travels in the Real Nigeria: Looking for Transwonderland

Posted in Africa, Arts in Africa, Books, Clips, Travel Writers on August 31, 2012 by frankbures

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.

Read the rest here.

We Aren’t the World: Kony 2012, Kenyans for Kenya and the Cultural Roots of Greg Mortenson

Posted in Africa, Clips, New Writing on April 5, 2012 by frankbures

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.

The story, The Land that Rain Forgot, is not one that will change the world. But I hope it at least shows how the world can change.  You can read it here.

People are People (Africa version)

Posted in Africa on March 30, 2012 by frankbures

Sort of basic, but sadly necessary, as Kony2012 made all too clear:

Mountains Never Meet but People Can Meet Again

Posted in Africa, Clips, Travel on March 20, 2012 by frankbures

Last fall, I got a long overdue chance to go back to Arusha, Tanzania, where I lived and taught English in the 1990s.  It was a great trip, and shocking to see how much the place has changed, all of which I wrote about in a story called The Reunion for the Washington Post Magazine.

While I was there, I spent the first few days just walking around noticing all the things that were different and all the things that were the same. One day I was looking for a little restaurant some friends and I used to go to.  I stopped at a bar I thought might have been the place.  There were some young people standing around near the gate, so I asked them if this used to be the place.

“I don’t know,” one of them said. “How long ago was it?”

“1996.”

“Ha!” She laughed, ” I wasn’t even born yet.”

The whole trip was filled with moments like that, and I always had the feeling of being able to see the past and present and future converging at one point. Yet while many things had changed, others hadn’t, like the warmth and humor and openness that I remembered so well.  You can read the story here, see some great photos by Sarah Elliot here, and listen to an interview I did for Michel Martin’s Tell Me More about it all here.  If that’s not enough, you can even go back and read a story I did way back called Test Day, which is still oddly popular, and which serves as a nice bookend to this one.

The Rise of Mobile Technology in Africa

Posted in Africa, Clips on March 6, 2012 by frankbures

A few months ago, as I walked down narrow Dubois Road, in the Central Business District of Nairobi, Kenya, I came to a small shop selling cell phones. There are thousands of these stores across the city. In some places, they line both sides of the street.

When I got to the counter, I asked the young man, whose name was Paul, about getting a SIM card for my phone so I could make calls in Kenya. I handed the phone to him. He took it, looked at it, then shook his head in pity.

“This is a very old phone. It is a phone from zamani!” he said. The Swahili word he used means “a long time ago,” but it can also mean ancient times, prehistory. I felt a little like Richard Leakey bearing some fossilized tool I’d just dug up in the Olduvai Gorge.

The phone was not that old. I bought it in 2005 in Nigeria.

Read the rest here.

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