Sort of basic, but sadly necessary, as Kony2012 made all too clear:
Archive for the Africa Category
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?”
“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.
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.
In a bookshop on Kenyatta Avenue, in the heart of downtown Nairobi, I was talking to an old woman named Patricia who was working there. I mentioned how much Nairobi had changed since the last time I visited, more than a decade ago. There were more cars now. More people. There were so many huge stores these days full of goods to buy.
“But the cost of living,” she added.
“You mean the food prices?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “That was when life began to change for us. The cost of living keeps going up. There are some people who can’t even feed themselves. Can you imagine not being able to feed yourself?”
I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I can imagine.”
It seemed like the right answer. But later, as I thought about it, I realized that in fact it is very hard to imagine. I can imagine it in my head, but I can’t really imagine what that would feel like. Maybe the mind doesn’t let one imagine those kinds of things. Maybe when your belly is full, the possibility simply vanishes. There is no way to know how you would react.
Last fall I got to spend some time in Nairobi, a city that has changed much since the last time I’d been there. Today the streets pulse with people and it has the energy of a megacity, which it might be by now. Like all the great urban centers of Africa, it also has a growing community of writers, artists and photographers who are defining the city on their own terms. One of the best examples is a book I picked up called Nairobi: An exploration of a city by photographers and writers, put out by the literary cadre at Kwani?
It’s a gorgeous collection that evokes almost as many worlds as the city contains. Culled from 15,000 photos, it is meant to capture the city over a 24-hour span, along with thoughtful essays by some of the best new writers like Parselelo Kantai, David Kaiza and others. The range is breathtaking, from the bloody to the beautiful, from the glamour of Nairobi’s upper crust, to the grit it takes to survive at the bottom. Like the city itself, it is a book you can get lost in or lose yourself in, an ocean of images to sail across or sink into. It isn’t available to order yet, but you can get a taste at the 24 Nairobi website.
Brilliant new song: “There’s more to Mama Africa than poverty and war.” (Via Chris Vourlias)
The best meal I ever ate was at a roadside restaurant in the middle of Nigeria. I was in a microbus heading north through an otherworldly landscape strewn with giant boulders. It was mid-morning when we pulled over at an open-air restaurant. The counter where people were ordering was jammed. An old man, seeing my confusion, explained the menu and ordered for me.
We sat down, and the waiter brought our food: a ball of pounded yam and a bowl of egusi soup, made with crushed melon seeds and containing a hunk of beef. The waiter asked if I wanted utensils. I looked around. No one else had them.
The old man leaned over. “You know,” he remarked, “they say your food tastes better when you eat it with your hands.” Sometimes I still wonder why that meal was so transcendent.
Just back from East Africa, where I heard this song on a bus. It’s been in my head ever since.