Sep 30 2012

Introducing “Hotel Africa,” new book on African politics

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:44 PM

Hotel Africa: the politics of escape presents an alternative way of looking at sub-Saharan Africa: a perspective that counters the usual media images of disaster, disease and mayhem. Far too often, Americans visiting Africa claim to meet only the sick, the murderous and the starving. Or they meet sick starving Africans murdering each other. In Hotel Africa, I showcase a different bunch of Africans – brainy Africans, caring Africans, hard-working Africans, dignified though damaged Africans – Africans who, under adverse conditions and not always successfully, attempt to build and sustain a decent life. In Hotel Africa, I also describe the complex set of incentives and penalties, constraints and opportunities, that give coherence and significance to the strivings of Africans, and to their failures as well as achievements. Hopefully by meeting these people, and by trying to understand the complex systems in which African lives are embedded, your understanding of Africa south of the Sahara will change and grow in ways that deepen your appreciation of this most misunderstood region.

The journey I wish to take you I began myself some dozen years ago. In 2000, I sat in a shack in the capital city of Burundi, smack in the heart of Africa, smack in the middle of an undeclared civil war, huddled together with a gang of irregular soldiers and their leader, a charismatic man in his 30s who I met with the assistance of Alexis Sinduhije, the leading journalist in Burundi. I sat with Alexis and these self-styled warriors, listening to them talk about mayhem from the heart of darkness – stories about pillaging and killing their ethic enemies – listening to them describing their actions and their motives – in short, doing what a foreign correspondent in Africa is supposed to do – reporting on human suffering, the people who inflict it, and its victims.

I spent three hours in a shack with these men and at the end I didn’t understand anything about who they were, what they did, where they came from, or their world. I wasn’t even sure what they told me was true, or whether that even mattered. So at the end of my carefully arranged encounter with young killers, I dined with Alexis Sinduhije and I told him, I don’t want to do this. Then I asked him a question – a question I would go on to ask many other Africans in many other places – can you show me something beautiful?

He did. He took me to an art dealer on the outskirts of Bujumbura and I gazed for the first time at sublime masks and statues, made by traditional peoples of central Africa. And in a Bujumbura gripped by tensions brought on by disorderly insurgencies, Sinduhije one evening took me to a private home where Burundians happily swayed to the captivating songs of Brenda Fassie, the South African diva, until the clock approached the city’s 10 p.m. curfew.

Alas, I never returned to Burundi. But I remain fascinated by traditional African art and music. Everywhere I have traveled in Africa, I have looked for the beautiful in the everyday, and for what works. At considerable cost to my standing with editors for the famous publications I once wrote for, I decided that better journalism could be done by reporting on what’s working in Africa – the functional, the sustainable, the dignified, the ordinary  – than by reporting on the pathological extremes that dominate global media coverage of Africa and Africans. I decided that journalism ought not to diminish and demean Africans under the guise of promoting sympathy for them.

Africans problems need not be exaggerated or invented in order to get Americans to care. At least not in my writings. Not by me.

My purpose is not to suggest that Africa is without problems, or that outsiders cannot help Africans. But the near-exclusive focus on African pathologies – and the media’s emphasis on the “pornography of pain” – presents only part of Africa’s reality, and not the most interesting or significant part either. In Hotel Africa, while I aim to explain forces that act on African affairs in often unrecognized ways, I also seek to celebrate concrete, commonplace African realities – realities that invite us to understand and engage Africa and Africans more deeply – and on a far more equal basis than we achieve by approaching Africans as objects of sympathy or assistance.

Sep 17 2012

Dignifying “everyday” Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:57 PM

Countless entries on Africa Works and, in articles I’ve written for others, have emphasized the importance of seeing Africa and its people in a 360-degree, panaromic perspective. Everyday Africans are, in short, vastly different than the dominant media images of disaster, disease and mayhem. Out of the everyday, a new image of the region is emerging, and that image, while not wholly positive, conveys a stronger, more appealing backbone than the usual fare. The premise is clear and persuasive: in understanding the normal, the functional — what works — in Africa, both Africans themselves and sympathetic outsiders can better appreciate this neglected and frequently abused (by media) region.

Photographers and video-documentarists have a special role to play in the reinvention of who and what counts as typically and paradigmatically African. So the appearance this month of a new collection of everyday African life, by an American photojournalist, is welcome. That the New York Times, in its influential “Lens” blog on visual journalism, is featuring the work of Peter DiCampo and Glenna Gordon. two terrific young photojournalists who have made outsized engagements with the sub-Saharan region. Their works highlights the sea-change in attitudes on the part of the mainstream media towards even the possibility of African normalcy.

The era of reveling in the pathology of African pain may not be over but at least the “pornography” of African pain is less compelling than at any time this century. DiCampo’s photos stand as evidence that in the everyday,  Africa’s depth and significance can best be grasped. His work parallels that of many other earnest and sincere chronicles of the African, arising from the soil of the continent and the passions of the diverse multitude driven to the African story.

Let the celebration of the “new African normal” begin in earnest.

Sep 14 2012

Reinventing the African safari: Mat Dry’s delicious dream

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:12 AM

Mat Dry is an American on an unusual mission: to re-invent the African safari.

Long dominated by hunters and suffused with colonial nostalgia, the African safari needs more than a makeover. The “great white hunter” was discarded along with many other tropes of exploitative colonialism. Dry, an Arizonan and a former tennis pro, discovered the African bush, then worked as a guide for one of South Africa’s leading tour companies. In recent decades, a new generation of safari companies have stripped out hunting and killing, redefining the safari as a pro-conservation pursuit that puts bearing witness to wild animals at the center of the experience.

The problem, of course, is cost, and also comfort. These safari are expensive: for the rich, if not the super rich. And the bear the stamp of colonial nostalgia because often — whether in the Masai Mara in Kenya or the Okavanga delta in Bostswana — animal lovers from Europe, the U.S. and Asia are kept far away from “wild” Africans. Only Africans employed directly in the safari experience are encountered. These safe, sanitized Africans, while earning a deserved good living, reinforce the perverted sense that people serve as backdrop to wildlife in Africa.

Dry rebels against this form of safari. While preserving the love of big animals, he’s managed to drive down costs, through clever deals with suppliers and his own penchant from roughing it. In his deftly written memoir, “This is Africa: true tales of a Safari Guide,” Dry recounts some his fascinating, romantic adventures in the bush, both with humans and wildlife. In person — and I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting him — Dry presents a pragmatic vision of how safaris for “the rest of us” might become more popular.

Dry’s secret is “overlanding,” taking large groups in a single bus or truck across vast areas. His capacity for camping in the African bush seems second only to Hemingway’s, whose novel, The Green Hills of Africa, immortalized the sublime encounters between man and nature on the African savannah.

I do not know whether Dry’s delicious dream of an African safari for “the everyman” (and woman) will become a reality. But I do know this: my wife Chizo and I will join him someday on one of his quixotic journeys. Until then, I will visit with the stories derring-do in his charming memoir.