“It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”
— Barack Obama, Chicago, 4th November 2008.
It’s just three miles and a lifetime’s journey from the South Side of Chicago to Grant Park, and I can remember every step.
How marvellous it was that the US election race this year should find its long-awaited finish line at the same spot as the Chicago Marathon — one of many high points I’ve shared with this incredible country through a relationship that stretches right across my adult life.
I entered the United States late one August night in 1981. Seventeen hours out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, we drove across a bridge and into Maine. Next morning, six hours and a brief stop in Portland later, I stepped wearily off the bus in downtown Boston — completing my journey from England to New England, where the history of this great nation had started.
That visit took me down the east coast to New York and Washington, in an arc via Pittsburgh to Niagara, and then back into Canada for a return flight home.
My memories of America from that trip? Coin-fed TV sets in lonely Greyhound bus stations. The wind on Cape Cod. Looking across the Charles River on a long walk out to Cambridge.
The view from the Empire State Building. The sound of dusk on Broadway. The New Jersey Turnpike. The Smithsonian. The Capitol.
A quote carved into the Washington pavement —
‘One of these days this will be a very great city, if nothing happens to it’ (Henry Adams).
My love affair with America had begun.
Posted in 2008, A1 - the best of roads of stone, Chicago, divided by an ocean, environment, heroes, history, Houston, Iraq, Kenya, life and times, politics, united in a future
This poster called as I walked from the station, reminding me that it’s time to wrap up my series on Kenya.
My visit last summer left me with a whole lot to say about the country, about Africa, and our attitudes to the continent and her people. I sat down to write, and the project found life of its own. Today I’ll outline some highlights, final thoughts and reflections.
What can we do to help the people of Africa?
Should we visit, as tourists? Is it enlightenment, or voyeurism, when tour companies arrange sightseeing trips to the ghettoes of Nairobi?
The problems are so massive that it’s easy to admit defeat – to assume that if governments can’t sort the problems, then aid agencies and individuals don’t stand a chance.
I don’t share that view. There’s a lot we can do, and here are some suggestions.
‘Say No to Corruption,’ read the badge on the immigration officer’s sleeve at Mombasa airport. Drawing our attention to the issue, right from the moment when we entered the country.
Kenya’s president from 1978 to 2002, Daniel arap Moi, was widely detested for corruption and political oppression. During his term, Kenya slipped from the 133rd to the 155th country in the world in economic prosperity. There might not be that many more countries.
Moi’s successor, Mwai Kibaki, was elected on an anti-corruption ticket – hence the badge campaign in Mombasa. But when I asked Kenyans during our visit what they thought of Kibaki – they were unanimous. ‘He’s the same as all the others,’ they said. ‘Corrupt, just like the rest of them.’
Yesterday’s declaration of Kibaki as victor in the Kenyan elections, despite a string of exit polls indicating firmly that he had lost to Raila Odinga, serves only to confirm that view.
Corruption. It might be Africa’s biggest problem. Certainly it’s the one trotted out by people who don’t want to help the continent. ‘There’s no point giving money, or aid,’ they say. ‘It’s unlikely to end up with those who need it.’
But this trip, I began to understand corruption, just a little. Not the kind of barefaced electoral swindle which threatens the whole practice of democracy, but rather the day-to-day variety. The siphoning off the top of just a little, and then more and more goods and money, so that finally they don’t arrive at all.
Why do people do it, and how can they so mindlessly deprive the needy ? That’s something I’d never come close to comprehending before.
The loss of one parent is traumatic enough, for any child. The loss of both must be almost unbearable.
At home, it happens rarely. But in Kenya, it happens a whole lot more.
The reasons ? Simple enough. There isn’t enough food to go round. There’s little medical care to speak of. Just about everyone has to battle with malaria, and malnutrition. Sickness and diarrhoea from unclean water dispatch thousands more, every year.
But that’s only the surface of the problem. Because there’s a huge medical problem in Africa. AIDS. It’s killing millions here.
Cool grey skies hang their high curtain above the savannah this morning. Scarcely any flash of colour. Just pale grassland, reaching as far as the eye can see, the horizon broken only by the gentle rise of distant hills and the lonely spread of a guardian acacia tree.
We rumble on, the tyres of the Land Rover clawing restlessly at the gravel. A shroud of pink is forming slowly in the east, where an invisible sun is lightening the underbelly of rippled cloud like some low energy lightbulb down a lonely corridor – weak and inept at first, then adding detail with every second.
Dawn on the Masai Mara – daybreak over one of the last wildernesses on Earth.
‘… 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.