‘… So often I had felt irritated with people who arrived here, lived in “little Europe” or “little America” (in luxury hotels), and departed, bragging later that they had been to Africa, a place in reality they had never seen.’
Ryszard Kapuscinski – The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life.
* * * * *
The sun is low in an African sky and my subcutaneous fat and I are running down the road.
The Indian Ocean lies behind me now, and with it the easy lifestyle of the North. The beach hotel. Comfort. Contentment. Ignorance.
And in front of me ? Adventure, uncertainty. Guilt. A touch of fear.
I’ve put this off for far too long. Why ? I’m not exactly sure. But I haven’t run for days, and I tied my shoes with strange reluctance this afternoon. A hundred excuses appeared to keep me by the pool, and worked hard to keep me there.
The truth is this: it’s hard to venture into the unknown. Too easy to bask lazily on the beach, gazing vacuously up at palm trees or the dreams inside your head. Too difficult, too risky ? No – just too uncomfortable to face the reality of another world around you.
A different world, not far away, on some television feature or rolling news where they show pictures from another planet. But here, right now, in front of you, outside the hotel gate.
That gate falls behind my steps, and Africa opens her arms out wide to greet me. I’m forgiven, for now, even if I don’t deserve to be.
* * * * *
Eager, thin men stand waiting outside the hotel, offering taxis and tours to anyone who wants one, and many who clearly don’t. Some might find that bothersome – but let’s just get real for a moment. This is Africa. That’s how it is.
There are crowds of people on the road. And not a single one of them is white. I’d like to kid myself, but it’s a strange inversion at first – just as unsettling and unfamiliar once again, although I’ve lived it many times before. I try to remember how I feel – conspicuous, edgy, out of place – to play it back whenever I see a lone foreigner back at home.
Rickety stalls and shacks stand in the mud beside the street, selling tourist knick-knacks for a dollar or two. Old men and women ease their worried looks and smile a commercial welcome as I pass.
‘Jambo sana. Hello, how are you ? Come and look inside my shop.’ I wave and smile, and carry on.
Beyond the beach – the Europeans’ narrow strip of pleasant land cooled by the ocean breeze – the equatorial girdle of this continent stretches four thousand kilometres, deep and green and humid in front of me.
But four hundred metres is all it takes to leave the Africa of the tourist brochure far behind. Outside Mama Lucy’s store, young men are wandering to and fro across the street.
A lad of twenty, wearing just one leg and a tattered Arsenal shirt, leans patiently on his crutches, waiting for a tourist slow enough to ask for cash. Battered taxis and an unlikely rickshaw weave dangerously through the crowd.
A little further on, I pass a group of black-cloaked young women, mysterious and austere behind their burkhas. A young couple in student shorts and tee-shirts, eyeing me with a puzzled glance. A tall businessman in suit and shiny black shoes, tripping lightly through the dust.
Just opposite, two mechanics are sitting on wooden stools beside a pile of bikes. They’re struggling fruitlessly with tyre levers as they try to fix a punctured wheel at an open air cycle shop, laid out beneath the spreading branches of a mimosa tree. They glance up as I raise a hand. ‘Jambo,’ I try, and they reward me with a smile.
By the time I reach the junction, with its scraggy petrol station of empty pumps and puddled yard, and the mosque and stumpy minaret just across the road, the thought is well-embedded. I’m surely running through an exotic travel documentary – about a safely distant world where life is completely different from the one I know.
But it’s the same world – it really is – just seen from a very different place.
A kilometre run. Sensed and lived. Experienced.
I turn left, and pick up my pace along the road. The evening fills with folk returning from work, and others heading into town. A policeman in smart white shirt and freshly pressed trousers stares blankly for a moment as I run by. A pair of cyclists pedal straight towards me, so I dodge hastily onto the stony verge.
Next comes a mother carrying a basket of watermelons on her head. Her six-year old daughter holds her hand, skipping joyfully in a pink and frilly dress.
A moment later, I pass a white-painted chapel behind a half-broken picket fence. Just beyond it lies a group of sketchily mud-walled houses, each with palm-thatched roofs. A man is leaning disconsolately against a tree, whilst his wife cooks their meal on an open fire. Barefoot, partly-clothed toddlers play happily close by.
A hundred similar shacks and hovels lie hidden amongst the woods, those nearest the road doubling as bars and shops. Customers are sifting through stacks of pineapples whilst a woman feeds her baby on a chair outside.
But don’t have any illusions. These aren’t houses – not as you or I would know them. No doors, or windows, no garden path. A slab of corrugated iron here, a scrap of chicken wire there. An earthen floor. No mosquito nets. No electricity either.
You’ll find no fridge, no washing machine, TV set or computer. No drains or sanitation. The only water comes in yellow plastic containers, fetched laboriously by hand or bike from the nearest working pump – which could be around the corner or half an hour’s walk away. Untreated water. And – let’s be crystal clear – not enough food.
Just remember for a moment that this is not a war zone, nor a famine-afflicted area, either. With its jobs in tourism, poorly-paid as they may be, this is a fairly prosperous village, by Kenyan standards. Yet nearly every Kenyan you’ll meet here is chair-leg thin.
Time to get real again. Let’s not flatter our expectations about the growing wealth of ‘developing’ countries. The gap between North and South splits ever wider. This is sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s simply how it is.
Half the world is struggling to eat at all, whilst we in Europe and America blithely eat ourselves to death.
Best keep that in mind, if ever you feel the need to complain about your life. Who really cares if the hotel buffet seems repetitive and unimaginative ? Because, let’s face it – there’s food for us to eat, and far too much at that.
Ahead of me, a minibus has stopped outside a clump of roadside stalls. Two men get off, and two more get on – whilst a third shins up to hang on outside the door. He waves cheerfully, and gives me a beaming smile as they pass. Then the bus driver toots and stops again, and the process repeats once more.
Another mimosa tree, and in its shade a guild of carpenters is hard at work, planing furniture from darkly sumptuous wood. What they’re making I’m not quite sure – a piano, a desk, or a coffin, maybe ?
At last I reach a bunch of shacks and stalls with waiting buses. I cross beside the newly-painted ‘Marks and Spencer’ sign, and turn around. Just three kilometres will bring me to the hotel – but I’ve seen enough to keep me thinking many miles more, and down a longer road than this.
How rich for me, and for you as well, that the world forgives us these lives we lead. But please don’t tell me – just don’t you dare – that we deserve it, by whatever twisted logic we construct. Or that we have neither the time nor means to solve the plight of Africa.
So many intractable, complex, frustrating problems, surely. But for heaven’s sake, we can’t escape the obligation to help our fellow man, however much we try to ease that moral failing in our minds.
The dusk is falling, and the fading light has sparked a hundred piles of glowing embers to flicker dimly beside the road.
The smell of woodsmoke hangs sickly sweet in the evening air. It’s the abiding, defining scent of sub-Saharan Africa. Insufficient food, cooking on an open fire.
I run faster now, back towards the beach. Before too long, the village voices fade into depths of blackness, and the cloak of night enwraps me before the hotel gate.
The darkness falls hard and quickly here. Because this is Africa, and that’s simply how it is.
161. Kenya 1: The road to Mombasa
124. Exploring Africa with Bono
103. Atlas shrugged – in the mountains of Morocco
102. Moroccan red – Marrakech
92. Live from London – Live8
Many thanks to Judd Corizan at The Rising Blogger for selecting this article as post of the day for 24th September 2007.
Judd is also interested in Africa – and his site carries a prominent link to Bloggers for Darfur – definitely worth a further look.
I really enjoyed this post – good perspective to carry with you and to share with others.
Congratulations, R., on the post of the day.
Beautiful article. It gives me the feeling that in spite of all the problems that we may have, we shouldn´t complain because there are lots of people who are not as lucky as we are. People who don´t have a comfortable life, people who are thin without wanting while here many of us try to get slimmer with a lot of effort.
I wish life everywere was easier without such large differences in the economy, health, work, education, etc.
Hello, good evening and welcome to you, firewings. Many thanks for taking the time to comment, and I’m very glad that you enjoyed this post.
There’s more of Kenya still to come, when I get around to writing it and if my long-sufffering readership rebels at a succession of over-long and over-earnest posts. But hey – they’ve never managed to silence me before.
Anyway, the Masai Mara is next, followed by a trip to the orphanage.
Somewhere amongst all that lot I hope to squeeze in some simple ideas on what we as individuals can do to help the plight of Africa.
Write less, give more cash ? Yes, you might have a point there, actually …
Hola, Antonio, and muchas gracias tambien.
Very good comment. And I absolutely couldn’t agree with you more.
Hasta enero en Almería !
I expect to see you in Brighton on 18th November. as well as in Almería in January.
Are you taking part at Brooks Brighton 10 km as well?
Saludos desde Almería
The Brighton 10 km is in my diary.
I’ve been out of action with injury these past few weeks, but I’ll see you there, whether I’m fit to run or not.
Hasta la revolución !
I hope you get better from your injury and can take part at the Brighton 10 km.
My aim is to do it under 55 minutes, which ,as you know, is too fast for me.
Looking forward to meeting you in Brighton, R.
Thanks, Antonio –
I’ve entered the Brighton 10km, and I hope to start running again at the end of next week.
55 minutes sounds a respectable and realistic target time for me on coming back from injury, and at that pace we can run a pleasant paseo together.
Hasta la paella que viene
A wonderful post. And Kenya is rich compared to most of Africa. I was at a party on Sunday and I heard someone speak of raising money for a local charity and say, in passing, “better than sending it off to Africa where you never where it’ll end up.” I was shocked. There’s no denying that corruption has been a terrible problem but compassion for fellow human beings, but for an accident of birth in whose shoes we might be (if they had any) is surely a worthier sentiment.
Thank you, ponolan, and a very warm welcome to Roads of Stone.
I agree with you completely – it’s true that we are all too unaware of the plight of our fellow man, in part perhaps because we somehow find it easier to ignore.
That’s not to say that I found anyone in Kenya who was miserable or depressed – quite the contrary.
It’s just that I feel there’s so much more that we can do.
Wonderful, thought-provoking post. In addition to being unaware (or conveniently forgetting) the plight of others, I think we sometimes tend to compare the lives of others to our own, which is not fair, really. I’ve certainly done it and I’m not proud of that.
Congratulations on the recognition for this post. Much deserved.
Many thanks as always, Ella.
This stuff just pours out of me at the moment, even if it takes time to put it all together.
I’ve surely bored everyone I know with the urgency of my thoughts about Africa, so this outlet may save some tired ears around here.
I’m not quite sure what you meant about comparing your own life to others, and the regret you felt. Can you explain a little more ?
Because comparing lives and lifestyles seems to be such an obvious and instructive thing to do in the face of contrast.
Many criticisms and uncertainties about Africa centre on corruption, which is rife and endemic.
For all of that, a closer engagement with local people on this trip led me to make some progress towards understanding the background to corruption, this time.
That’s not for a moment to condone it – there was a Channel 4 documentary here just tonight dealing with the bribes demanded of Kenyan orphanages by local officials – and that is truly shocking.
I’ll come back to expand on this shortly, once I’ve arranged it into some more sense than I can manage this evening.
Thanks again for your comment.
Sure I’ll explain; I did have a particular instance in mind.
I was working in Moscow in 1987, at the beginnings of glasnost and peristroika but it was still an oppressive society (very much so) and still a system of hard currency stores for us, little available for them and most of what was available was substandard.
Everywhere I looked I saw teenagers with aluminum teeth. I saw women as nature makes us — no cosmetics, no nips, tucks, eyelifts or apparent benefits of (often overpriced) skin care that we in the West take for granted.
While I had studied the USSR for years and learned enough Russian to be understood and thought I knew what to expect, I was shocked by what I found daily and wondered aloud to another American who’d been there a long time how people, especially the young, could live that way and seem so happy.
She told me not to compare their lives to mine because they didn’t. They compared their lives to those of their parents and grandparents. And they were much better off.
Thanks so much for your comment, Ella. I can see exactly what you mean, now. I think that what you say goes right to the very heart of what I am saying here, and so this could become quite an interesting discussion. So please don’t take offence if I choose to look at it another way.
Firstly, I’d agree with you wholeheartedly that material wealth doesn’t have all that much to do with happiness. If anything at all, surprisingly.
You’re right that people’s expectations of living standards are dependent on where they grow up, and so it’s arguable that direct comparisons don’t then apply. I thought exactly that way myself for many years.
But, over time, I’ve radically changed my view.
Perhaps the great contradiction here is not why some people can be happy with so much less to own and to eat, but why we Europeans and Americans should really have any kind of right to expect more.
It just doesn’t add up, and I simply can’t justify it any longer.
I’ve worked on Africa and with Africans intermittently, over much of my working life. And although an early trip to work in an apartheid-ridden South Africa was one of the most defining events in my own political development, perhaps my views began to change much further and beyond the obvious anti-racism standpoint when, many years later, I saw African geologists taken on as local staff during the course of operations.
Because, restricted to working and training in West Africa, those people would have very limited opportunities. But exposing them to training and education in Europe revealed some fantastically gifted people.
What that tells me, is that yes, we may have different expectations. But we are completely the same, underneath. We have the same qualities, and the same capabilities, the world over. What we lack is only opportunity.
I was struck during a recent visit to Ghana that I found myself working directly with a geologist who had been born in the same year as me, undergone the same training (but via an infinitely harder route) and yet whose life was, and always would be, enormously different from my own.
Why was that ? Just an accident of birth – that’s all it was. I could just as easily have been born in his place, and he in mine – it was simply being born in a different place which defined all that difference.
And when it comes to lifestyle, and food to eat, and medical care, and clean water – why should it be us who have those things, and not those children whom I ran past beside the road in Kenya ? Why should they be deprived the very basics of a healthy life, and any kind of route to personal development, when our children have all those things ?
There’s no explanation or satisfactory justification that I can come up with, for that difference.
Things are how they are – yes, of course, I understand that. But I keep coming back to that question of opportunity, and so please forgive me if I misquote out of context for a moment, and dabble in the insensitively and irreverently shocking to make my point.
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …’.
Famous words, and of course, we’d all subscribe to that view, within our own countries, wouldn’t we ?
But the fact is, that when you survey the world as a whole, it’s just not true. Is that because we’re better than others, that we deserve more, just because we have a more developed political system than them ?
I don’t hold to that view, any more. The point is that there is no equality of opportunity when it comes to Africa. The kinds of privilege that we enjoy just don’t arise. There is no mechanism for so many people there ever to receive any of the fantastic chances in life that we enjoy.
Because we do have those opportunities, and because we live in empowered democracies, with resources and wealth to make a difference, we do actually have some power to change the world for the better. But it’s much too easy just to do nothing about it, and to forget to recognise the problem.
I agree entirely that most people in Africa don’t grow up expecting those kinds of privileges and opportunities – you’re exactly right there. But it’s precisely because we have those things (and they don’t) and yet still take that configuration so completely for granted that concerns me.
And even more worrying is the possibility (or probability) that we have our lifestyle perhaps exactly because these people don’t. All our cheap imported goods, all the many commodities and raw materials which drive our economies and our flash cars and fancy houses. Do they come about simply because someone somewhere is being disadvantaged in life, and precisely because there is no such thing as free trade with Africa ?
That’s the crux of it, I think. It’s a really uncomfortable thought, in fact, and I’m not pretending there are any simple solutions here. I’m just saying that we need to look at this differently now.
In today’s world, with all the technology and enlightenment and democracy that we claim to have, it’s just not acceptable that an accident of birth can exalt you to the highest level of luxury and health, or condemn you to a life of near starvation and an early grave.
But unfortunately, that’s exactly how it is.
No offense taken at all and really, we’re on the same page in a way. One reason, a major reason, I left Manhattan was so I could downsize my life and get back in touch with things that really matter.
My lifestyle there was not one that tabloids would call “glittering excess” but there was an excess of material goods — and wants — and a requisite hardening of oneself (common to all world capitals, I suspect) to survive.
Example: The fact that I first had to pretend I didn’t see the homeless to survive and then really did not upset me greatly.
And I fully agree with every word in your penultimate sentence.
I do not understand how hereditary honors and privilege can still exist. But then, I’m a Yank.
Hereditary honours – yup, just don’t get me started on that one.
But at the most basic level, I meant ‘privileged’ to cover any affluent lifestyle rather than any connotations of social rank.
In that sense, even a full stomach is an unattainable privilege for far too many people in Africa.
Point #1 – alrighty, won’t. Yet.
Seriously, your point about a full stomach is appreciated and I’m appalled and embarrased by how many hungry Americans we have. There is absolutely no excuse for this. None. Much as I would like to lay the blame entirely on GWB and his obscene expenditures for war, this has been the case for decades. Presidents of both parties have had a chance to do something real and constructive and did not. That, to me, is immoral.