Archive for August, 2007

Before leaving

August 30, 2007

The ancient Roman Pliny the Elder wrote “Out of Africa, always something new.” Even if for him Africa barely reached beyond Egypt the expression bounces with a jaunty enthusiasm for parts unknown. Nowadays Africa can seem more like an idea than an actual place. And a couple millennia after Pliny it’s not where too many outsiders look with high expectations. Looking in from far away, the continent seems more like the opposite, a vortex of hope. On the other side of the world, few words silence a room, or fill up an arena, better than ‘Africa.’ No place, not even Iraq, causes such frenzies of solemnity. Merely mentioning the A-word induces deep thought on post-conflict society and life on $1 per day or, failing that, the fear that while others contemplate deeply, they also consider you stupid and insensitive.

I have an opportunity to visit a few parts of this massive continent. How massive? Tangier is further from Durban, South Africa than it is from Alaska. This blog will cover a few slivers of Africa. Unavoidably, it will be part travelogue but one that tells stories of broader interest than my gastrointestinal distress. Journalistic conventions tend to restrict all but the most in-depth work from portraying ordinary life. This is even truer for Africa, which receives little attention in the international media. What coverage that exists gravitates to the most horrific news. For most Africans, daily life is, as elsewhere, a struggle to improve one’s lot. The difference is that many, many Africans live with burdens that people from the rich world have trouble imagining. But talking about “Africa” doesn’t convey what it’s like to live under those circumstances or how they might be addressed.

Nothing qualifies me as a guide. And frankly writing about it, pre-departure, feels a bit absurd. I’m supposed to mention Africa’s problems but what can be said without getting all portentous? Talking about Africa is best reserved for looking at the whole continent, easily done with a globe in a well-appointed study. Instead, this blog will focus on details. Sounds and smells. With some luck and hard work, I hope to offer a few scenes and photographs that you won’t find elsewhere.


Worth a thousand tears

August 8, 2007

Talk about gravitas! This painting hangs in a bar near my Brooklyn apartment, presumably for sale.


I don’t know who the artist is or why anyone would want that leering skull hanging in the kitchen. But clearly, the artist cares.

The picture reminds me of those computer generated posters where every pixel in an image is itself a photograph. Put together a thousand tiny pictures and, voila, a kitten. In Africa, my planned approach is the opposite. It’s to describe a hundred of those photos. It won’t be as cute or coherent as a kitten.

One theme that may recur through those post is economic life, taking and trading, needs and wants. It’s an arena where almost everyone participates, a concept everyone understands. A very experienced journalist recently told me that even in war zones its possible to find people going about their business. They need to eat. This increases exponentially beyond immediate danger. Even in difficult conditions most people seek out normalcy and stability. Their effort is worth acknowledging and recording. If that seems too obvious to write, take another look at the painting.

OK, enough speculating. See you over there.