Africa: From Cairo to Cape Town
Published 15/10/2011 | 05:00
Should we feel sorry for Africa? It's a question that tags along behind me on my journey from Cairo to Cape Town.
At the various hubs where travellers gather, it is alluded to through anecdotes and theories, but is never asked directly. In some cases it is the reason for coming, and often the question is asked long before arrival, entrenched in us from the first fistful of coppers that we drop in the Trócaire box.
And while I am there, primed to spot the stereotypes, initial impressions seem to oblige.
In Gonder, a bustling city in northern Ethiopia, we sit on a rooftop café, digging into a breakfast of eggs and coffee. Our new friend Alex has a Coke. He is a slight 17-year-old from the area, with good English and a kind heart. We became friends the night before outside our guesthouse, and are surprised to bump into him almost instantly again the next morning.
Later on, his apparitions became more predictable, and the terms of our friendship become increasingly ambiguous.
After breakfast, he takes us through the town, which, before long, becomes a village. People are tucked into tidy, Tolkien huts, usually around a fire where women make injera -- a slightly sour pancake that is the staple food of Ethiopia. They skillfully swirl the mix onto a pan and whip it into circles with casual snaps of the wrist. It cooks in moments, and the stacks constantly grow.
We continue on, outside of the village, where homes made of plastic bags ripple in the wind. Children surround us, all cheerful, with outstretched hands. An old woman floats into the scene out of nowhere. Her skin is waxy and stretched, her face cased in a permanent groan. She takes my brother's hand and kisses it.
Alex takes control of the situation. After some negotiation, it seems that we're going to buy some injera for some of the children in the street. The first batch is delivered through a cosy kitchen nearby, but it's not enough. A second batch is negotiated. We need to leave, but have surrendered all control. Eventually, we direct momentum back to where we belong, and the children follow after us, chanting their appreciation.
"Fa-ran-ji! Fa-ran-ji!" Fo-reign-ers!
"Pen! Pen! Pen! Pen!"
Again, our guide takes over, and suddenly all of the children are sitting together to one side. They're going to be good, and we're going off to buy pens.
The situation is hopelessly infinite and our presence is clumsy. It is emotional; the need to show some simple human goodness plainly obvious -- the African caricature is alive and well. But where do we fit into the picture?
On this occasion we throw cash like smoke bombs and vanish back to our guesthouse, and it's embarrassing. Somewhere in the gift, there is a great flaw.
Walking back, we see the men watching us, both young and old. Without looking in their eyes, we don't know if they watch with anger, shame, or just hopelessness. But we feel their gaze, and it says that we have superseded them.
We are the visitors who have assumed the role of parents. The next day, the children will be hungry again, we will be gone, and if the parents feel defeated, is it our contribution to their defeat that has made a more lasting mark? Clearly, foreign money is useful, essential even, but as long as transactions show dominance, subordination will surely survive.
Extreme poverty exists, but the spectrum of African existence is more stretched than it is lop-sided. On the other end, there is extreme, everyday happiness. And you see it in people such as Kenneth.
We meet him on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, driving in light traffic. His vehicle of choice is rollerblades. Sprinting away from us, he wears his cap backwards, a rucksack on his back and a Ugandan flag hanging from his back pocket. When we're forced to stop, Kenneth hits the brakes likewise, wipes his forehead and looks around.
We catch his eye, and he spins, treats us to a series of smooth slides, and moonwalks back to us. He rests his arm on the open window ledge and smiles before showing off his signature knee-dip back-bend.
As soon as traffic stops us he tells us about himself and we tell him about the trip. He soon notices his own stop coming up, and we slow down.
"Maybe I will see you again in this world ... " he says, and he seems to mean it. "How far are you going?"
He touches his chest and looks deeply at us.
"Make it!" he shouts, before racing across the road; presumably to pop a heel-wheelie at the next lady he should see.
In northern Tanzania, we pull over for lunch in a village. Settling into a simple meal of chicken, rice, beans and greens, we study the walls filled with posters of African football heroes, Chelsea players and rappers. There is also a picture of a classic American, white picket-fenced house. It is a little eerie, and probably undermines the cosiness it tries to exhibit.
After lunch, I go out the back to use a toilet. Behind the tidy, makeshift restaurant, the stereotyped world opens up again. There are naked babies. The structure around the toilet is flimsy, so everyone knows what I'm up to. As in Gonder, the town falls apart layer-by-layer from the main road.
It seems to suit foreigners, who go to Africa looking for trouble, to exaggerate and then milk the glory. Images of bandits jumping out of the shadows go well with our pre-occupation with disaster; gallant explorers who wouldn't leave home without fanny packs filled with the means to make fire.
But that reporting is all a bit selective. Even on a tight budget, the journey is safe and comfortable. Sure, some of the roads are dreadful, some of the mechanics are children and the cars share space with unleashed donkeys, but there is no great danger of which to speak.
It is understandable why we would feel sorry for Africa, but if sympathy is the only sensation that we have, we continue to foster dependency. Solutions come from harnessing strengths, and these exist in spades. Balancing our focus could do wonders for Africa and faranjis too.