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.



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.


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.


May 27, 2008

On a few occasions over the last nine months, I’ve driven through a safari park, thrilled by the lions, elephants and gazelles. Outside those big zoos, it’s been at least as much fun noticing Africa’s less heralded fauna. They tend to come much closer. So far I haven’t experienced the proverbial cobra in the sleeping bag, but I have felt big hairy spiders run down my leg in the middle of the night. Let me tell you, it’s at least as much of a kick as spotting a lion asleep at fifty yards. Lizards sun in the gardens and frogs hop away from car tires. Millipedes frighten me and the other day a brilliant orange moth, five inches across, rested on an ATM screen.

Ambling over the coral reefs at low tide, loose limbed starfish actually walked through the shallow water and sea cucumbers recoiled to the touch. By moonlight thousands of small white crabs commandeered the beach, rearranging themselves like chessmen whenever people approached.

The main hazard in the water are the constellations of sea urchins peeking out from beneath every coral ledge. Every safari should include a hunt so, thinking uni, I brought a few inside and chopped them open, their quills still twiddling. The goop you’re supposed to eat is difficult to remove from the goop you’re not. I lacked the patience to separate enough of it for a pasta dish. Urchin, perhaps, is only a delicacy when someone else prepares it for you.

Hawking fish

May 27, 2008

A friend and I had some work to finish up so we rented a cottage on the Kenya shore. It looks a lot like paradise, conventionally defined. As you may know, the fighting in Kenya demolished the country’s tourism industry and we appeared to be the only guests staying at a very nice beach.

My friend and I both spend much of our time writing pitches to various magazines and read deep into the entrails of their responses, when we get responses. At the shore we were on the receiving end of the pitches and I can’t say I liked it. Each time we stepped off the cottage porch –a rarely violated, but unspoken barrier— fishmongers approached wondering what we’d like for dinner tonight and tomorrow night and, if we’d care to say so, the night after that. They carried long legged octopi tied together with reeds. Fish they’d just speared hanged from their belt. Gaze a second too long in the wrong direction and someone held a cephalopod aloft.

If I had my way with editors, they would respond quickly. Along with their yes or no, one can dream, they’d suggest topics of future interest. If a fish monger had his way, I’d ignore his friends and listen to him explain how the fundamentals of capitalism work in this particular case (he finds sea creatures and sells them to us) then lay out our menu for the next few days.

Of course, when we bought fish, it had nothing to do with who had the freshest fish or who nagged us best. It had quite a bit to do with who happened to be walking by the minute we decided ‘we want fish.’ It’s not hard to find a parallel to my own professional situation.

Indy’s return

May 22, 2008

In a few minutes I’m going to play hooky from many pressing engagements to see Indiana Jones. The movie opens on the same day in Kenya as everywhere else. The last one, almost certainly, did not. This is a good time to be alive.

When the last Indiana Jones movie opened, I was ending fourth grade and saw it with my dad. At the time I judged movies by whether they had fire in them. At least every good movie I could name had a fire scene. Indiana Jones didn’t feature the most fire but it was my favorite. Over the last two decades I’ve joked, more than once, that my childhood will be complete when the last Indy movie comes out and Guns ‘N’ Roses release Chinese Democracy.

I’ve never discussed Indiana Jones on Internet message boards or dressed up like him at a comic convention, but he has influenced me, a lot. Perhaps more than is healthy. ‘Would Alex be in Africa, on his own little search for facts, if not for Indiana Jones?’ is a legitimate question and one I don’t want to dwell on. Whether or not I’m trying to live up to standards set by a fictional character, on balance this trip has been free of Spielbergian derring-do. I haven’t shot a gun or been shot at, even with a blow dart. I haven’t ridden an animal as a form of transportation or sought out bad elements. Part of growing up is learning one’s limitations. Indy knew his. In the Last Crusade he realizes the grail is beyond his grasp and lets it fall through a fissure in the Earth.

I don’t have high hopes for the new movie. It has a new sidekick, which can’t bode well. Aside from that I know very little about it. A nice thing about living in Africa is how easy it is to avoid hype. I’ll probably be the only person in the theater for the 10:05 am showing. That’s fine; nobody needs to see me stand up and cheer.

Back in Kenya

May 19, 2008

Back in Kenya

One of the most common complaints about journalism by westerners in Africa is that we treat the continent like a country. It’s a fair point. One billion people… a landmass larger than China, Europe, India and the lower 48 combined (seriously, look it up)… innumerable cultures and languages and all we say is ‘Poor!’ ‘Violent!’ ‘Sick!’


So here’s a small example of that diversity. Back in Kenya I’ve been overwhelmed by Nairobi’s size and abundance. Kampala is hardly the poorest or smallest or slowest capital in Africa but in Nairobi I’ve been impressed by the scale of the buildings, blinded by the reflecting glass on the office towers, thrown off by the speed of life. The stores burst with a (slightly) higher quality of things to buy. It makes the prospect of going home somewhat daunting, frankly.

More politics

May 14, 2008

There is a troop build up on both sides of Uganda’s northern border with DR Congo and rebels attempted (and failed) to  take Khartoum. Even relatively nearby, news like this doesn’t have too much impact here. It’s sort of like hearing about flooding in the Midwest or, for that matter, military maneuvers in Africa which don’t make much sense and are unlikely to benefit anybody.

The Big Show

April 24, 2008

On Saturday’s across East Africa, bars and makeshift video halls fill up with men watching English premiership football. It’s as regular and ritualistic as church and as a public gathering probably as important. In small towns, like the one I’m in now, a hotel lobby with a TV will fill to bursting right before kickoff. During night games, it’s the only sign of life in the area. Neither Kenya nor Uganda’s national team qualified for the Africa Cup this year, so it’s the teams from their former colonialist on whom people hang their hopes.

That last statement is a bit misleading. More than any other sport, English football is a global obsession and its top players seem to come from everywhere except England.. Manchester United and Arsenal, are the favorites across Africa and Asia and just about everywhere except Newcastle. Man U. is the biggest show on Earth, their minor games draw a global audience several times larger than the Super Bowl. Last night was a big game, a European semi-final against Barcelona. I watched the first half in a bar stuffed with several hundred men, many paying 30 cents admission since they couldn’t afford to drink. I’ve failed to become interested in U.K. football, even though it would help endear me to sources. I left at halftime but hear that when the game is over the roads out of town are packed with long lines of men walking back to the villages and displaced person camps.

Almost no one here claims a team other than Man. U. or Arsenal. Matatu drivers decorate their rides with the teams’ corporate logos: AIG for Man. U, Fly Emirates for Arsenal. One Englishwoman, who supports Liverpool told me the loyalty here is more to good football and whomever’s on top of the standings. When Liverpool was falling behind one man suggested that she switch teams. She told him it would be like him changing tribe.

P.S. Another story. This one’s in Fast Company.

Quitting time

April 13, 2008

Mo Ibrahim, the businessman who started CelTel, one of the largest telecom companies in Africa, recently founded an eponymous prize. Calling itself the largest prize in the world, it’s worth $5 million over ten years and then $200,000 a year for life. It goes to an elected African head of state who serves commendably and, here’s the important part, willingly gives up office. Whereas leaders in most parts of the world land cushy, lucrative jobs after their terms expire, there are few jobs in Africa more cushy or lucrative than head of state. In America, say, no one runs for president to get rich. (They’re usually already rich.) In many African countries, the power and wealth that come with the presidency are indistinguishable. What’s more, leaders often fear that once they step down they will lose their source of wealth and/or face criminal prosecution. The common thing, then, is to cling to office as if their life depended on it, which it often does. The Mo Ibrahim prize, therefore, essentially functions as a legitimized bribe: step down and you’ll be taken care of. In 2007, Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, won the first Mo Ibrahim prize.

A few events from the past week demonstrate Ibrahim’s grasp of realpolitik.

1) In Kenya, opposition candidate, and probable election winner, Raila Odinga, backed away from talks (and riots ensued) after he felt he was getting the raw deal in constructing the new government. In case you forgot, months of unrest followed after Mwai Kibaki was declared winner of a flawed vote. After the election Kibaki said Odinga’s recourse was to the courts, which Kibaki effectively controlled.

2) In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has refused to release the results of the presidential election from two weeks ago (though his party lost control of parliament). It’s a fair bet that Mugabe will never win the Mo Ibrahim prize. Why would he want it? It wouldn’t cover the upkeep of his house, said to be the largest private residence in Africa.

3) After repeated promises, Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army which has waged a 20 year insurgency in northern Uganda, declined to sign a peace treaty. There were some questions over the legal wording and then Kony fired his chief negotiator. He appears concerned that his two decade career as a war criminal could result in jail time.