Archive for June, 2008

To the village

June 29, 2008

Not too long ago on the Lunatic Express, the train from Nairobi to Mombasa, I met a businessman who had lived in Nairobi since 1963. A real estate developer with some other interests he still considered his home the village where he had grown up and where he would return to grow old and be buried. Traveling from cities to villages, or what expats sometimes just call The Village is in many ways the quintessential African journey even though it’s sometimes short enough to walk in fifteen minutes.

I’ve spent most of the past ten months in cities but I’ve taken trips to the village often enough to offer a generic description. In a hectic parking lot teenaged boys thread between minibuses shouting out their destination. If you’re going their way they’ll lead you to their vehicle. If you’re white there’s a good chance they’ll stick you in the front seat and ask for more money. Men selling watches, airtime, water, soda and newspapers knock on the bus windows. When every seat on the bus is full, and never before, the bus shakes alive and edges out of the lot.

The trip begins near a city center with a few tall buildings and shops packed together. There are embassies and pizzerias. The road passes small factories and houses on hillsides. Pretty soon there are banana trees between the houses and the factories disappear. The road gets bumpier.

As people who know a lot more than me have pointed out, this journey is so important because it crosses the rift in 21st century life between commerce and tradition, respect for the past and hope for the future.

Bars

June 25, 2008

It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that every window I’ve seen for ten months has been protected with burglar bars. OK not always bars. Sometimes they’re covered by metal plates cut by sidewalk welders as decorative spirals or flowers or boxy shapes . Still there appears to be a plate of metal between every window in Africa and the outside world. This includes big storefront windows and tiny portholes in restrooms.

Not everywhere has Jo’Burg’s ostentatious security. There patrol cars full of armed security officers cruised around the rich neighborhoods, but every affluent organization and middle class home is surrounded by tall walls, usually topped with electric wire or barbed wire twisted in elaborate shapes or spikes or sometimes just old fashioned broken glass pointing up. Most of them also have security guards who generally don’t hold the keys to the house.

Chatting

June 15, 2008

Quite often, two people from the northeastern United States meet in East Africa. They circle each other like dogs sniffing each others’ butts. They’re both excited and wary. Where are you from? Do you know? (They usually do.) Where did you go to school? They try to determine whether the other person is serious. Then they talk, overcoming the vast cultural and linguistic gap between people who grew up in the suburbs of Washington with those of us who grew up in the suburbs of New York.

One reason I enjoy talking to people from the northeastern United States is that I have so many frames of reference. Whatever towns they’re from or bands they like or books they read or places they go on vacation are hints about a person. In Africa I have far fewer hand holds. If someone says where they’re from I usually don’t know it. Is it like Scarsdale or Yonkers? Palo Alto or East Palo Alto? When Americans talk to each other, we can’t help but spray information about ourselves. Talking to people here, it’s much harder to find revelatory nuggets of information. Part of it is that in rich societies people sketch themselves by how they spend their time and money. Here those options are more limited so you have to look elsewhere.