“Everytime we go out for drinks lately you tell me about some horrible thing happening in Africa,” my friend Jane said last night as we were out in downtown Lincoln.
It’s true, reading about various parts of Africa has been an obsession for me lately. In addition to various news specials about East Africa on the BBC and Aljazeera websites, [check out The Reluctant Outlaw and The Mayor of Mogadishu] I’ve finally been reading What is the What, by Dave Eggers, which chronicles a Southern Sudanese man, Valentino Achak Deng’s journey on foot from South Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya, to the US where he’s resettled. In addition to that I recently received a beautiful hardback version of Kurt Vonnegut’s collection of essays Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, which contains a wonderful essay about the former West African nation Biafra, Biafra: A People Betrayed.
I’ve been surrounding myself with African literature and news lately because now nearly a year removes me from my experience there, and I want to try to understand the region better than I did in my 3 short months in Kenya and South Sudan, that I began so green and ready for adventure.
The length of my stay in East Africa has presented a journalistic challenge for me. I don’t know the place well enough to write extremely in-depth pieces, and have consequently shied away from analytical writing on the subject, despite doing extensive research, having lived there, and remaining in close touch with friends who still reside in South Sudan and Kenya.
I worry about my writing falling into a “Westerner’s experience in Africa,” which can be awfully troublesome. But in the end, that is what I know. I can write best about being thrown into an internship in a city where 70% of the population lives in the slums and I sleep behind a gate guarded by 3 guards at night; about hand-written plane tickets and peeing near land-mines and riding motorcycles through the countryside. I can write about how I was buddies with all of the Nairobi cab drivers and how they would pick me up from clubs at 5am, and about showering in rain water collected in buckets because the water had shut off again.
What I can’t write about is intimately knowing the politics behind all of the tribal conflicts and situations causing so much grief. I can’t pretend to understand what it feels like to be from any country in Africa. I feign no expatriate status in Africa as I often do in Europe. In Africa I was an observer. I had no idea what it really feels like to live in a refugee camp, despite visiting one for a week, and I had no idea what to do in one when I first visited, in November 2010.
There can be value in just going relatively blind into a place, and having very few expectations of what is going to meet you there. The merit is that you are in a sort of pure state of mind, and can absorb the place for its face value. But in the cases of Kakuma Refugee Camp and South Sudan, a big part of me wishes I would have extensively researched both and read, as I am now, What is the What.
I wish I had read it before going to Kakuma, because no matter how open-minded you are about a place, you will always look through your own personal lens of ignorance and bias. Reading What is the What first would have helped me feel less overwhelmed by the situation, there and in South Sudan.
The night before my trip to South Sudan last year, I was out at a co-workers birthday party. Our friend who is a Spanish journalist came to dinner with a copy of What is the What, signed by Valentino himself, whom she had just interviewed.
Now I feel is it symbolic, but it only recently occurred to me that this happened. Previously, I only remembered from that night that I’d received my visa from the GOSS a few hours before, and had spent the day in a Doxycycline-induced stupor. I was extremely anxious, but glad I was leaving late in the afternoon the next day, so when Andre said he wanted to party, we headed to Gypsy and I tried not to think about what would happen in the next 24 hours.
The next day was eventful. After flying over the Nile and into the dusty airstrip filled with white UN helicopters, I stood outside the Juba airport in the 100 degree heat with a large backpack for two hours waiting for someone from my organization to pick me up. Eventually I made my way to where I needed to be, but the event was extremely worrisome, for many careless reasons.
My trip continued with craziness and adventure. It included riding motorbikes through the countryside for two days, a few bizarre nights out in Juba and Yei, some beautiful walks around the countryside, a terrible stomache bug my last weekend, a visit from and interview with a German Archbishop, and many interviews with repatriated South Sudanese.
It was the interviews, with the South Sudanese and with the refugees at Kakuma, that affected me so. The stories that people told sitting in front of me were so foreign to a Westerner’s ears, often so horrific it was difficult often to know what expression to have on my face, let alone what to say in response.
If you have read What is the What or ever read anything about the war in Sudan, (or other parts of Africa) you will know the kind of atrocities I’m talking about. Entire villages burned. Women raped on the streets. Men raped in the bush. Babies head’s smashed in front of their mothers. Little children enslaved in Armies on all sides. Walking for months without shoes or proper food.
What would you say if someone was sitting in front of you, saying things like this?
Though there were some truly beautiful, peaceful times in Yei, South Sudan, (where I spent most of my time) particularly with a very cool American Jesuit, ultimately I left the country weak and scared and homesick, and after I’d returned to Nairobi after Christmas break in the States, I couldn’t imagine why I had even gone in the first place. Why I needed to see these places and take the bucket showers and interview so many traumatized people.
I had this reaction not because I was against living simply, or adventurously. I loved that aspect of it, most of the time. It was because of the feeling I had for months after being in Nairobi and Kakuma and South Sudan. I felt utterly helpless in the face of such insurmountable problems, in such senseless violence, in such pain.
This was coupled with the feeling thrust upon me from both my organization and general public that I was given an amazing opportunity and that I should eternally be grateful that I could be paid to be shipped around Africa, to do the sort of work I was best at and enjoyed. Certainly, I was and am grateful for the experience in general. The work was incredible. I would kill for another writing position like that. But I wasn’t grateful when I was left to fend for myself in Juba, and I wasn’t grateful for knowing some of the things I knew when I left.
Over Christmas in the States I would rant about the horrors of “Africa” when I’d go out drinking, and for a time it made me apathetic to the problems of the region. I just wanted to forget about it.
So I did, more or less, in 6 months of living in Eastern Europe. Then, several months after leaving Kenya, finally I encountered something that spoke to me on a personal, balanced level about a Westerner’s experience in Africa—Vonnegut’s essay on Biafra.
I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time. (from Biafra: A People Betrayed)
Kurt Vonnegut went to the Republic of Biafra in January of 1970, just weeks before they surrendered unconditionally to the Nigerians, who were in the process of obliterating the break-away nation.
Vonnegut was only there for six days, and from that experience he wrote a beautiful essay about the most tragic of times.
It was only when I read Vonnegut’s piece that I began to feel like I could think about Africa again, amid living beautifully in Krakow, Poland. Until then, I felt like this most of the time, that Spring: [Friday on Ul. Bracka].
Suddenly, I was able to address what I’d felt and learned about in those three months without guilt or obsessive analysis. Vonnegut’s experience in Biafara was wildly different and infinitely more dire than anything I experienced in East Africa, but many of the same emotions applied. He simply writes what happened, what he saw, and what occurred after he left the country.
The entire essay is is unbelievably tragic. But it doesn’t make you feel awkward the way those ads on late-night television do with the starving children. It doesn’t paint a one-dimensional happy-go-lucky picture of Africans either, saying, “perhaps some are poor, but in the end, they go home singing.”
Vonnegut doesn’t apologize for anything. He respects the people he encounters. And he admits his own failings, describes his own emotions in response to the atrocities:
Miriam was annoyed by my conversation at one point, and she said scornfully, “You won’t open your mouth unless you can make a joke.” It was true. Joking was my response to misery I couldn’t do anything about.
(from Biafra: A People Betrayed)
And he made art out of something you can’t do anything with other than make art. His essay is comparably the written version of what Night and Fog did, Alain Resnais’s genius 1955 documentary of the holocaust. All of the horrific scenes are before your eyes, but in art Resnais makes it bearable, just as Vonnegut does. In some ways it is a resignation, but in these cases it seems resignation may be the only way to stay sane. There’s just nothing you can do.
My neighbors ask me what they can do for Biafra at this late date, or what they should have done for Biafra at some earlier date.
I tell them this: “Nothing. It was and is an internal Nigerian matter, which you can merely deplore.”
Some wonder whether they, in order to be up-to-date, should hate Nigerians now.
I tell them, “No.”
(from Biafra: A People Betrayed)
The difficulty with Westerners who talk about and work in various parts of Africa is how stereotyped it often is, and how difficult and long of a process it is to begin to understand the issues at hand. Diplomacy and charity do, if possible, make the general state of living better for those in dire situation. I remember once in Poland having a discussion with an American girl asking if I thought Western charity in Africa was simply another act of colonization. I scoffed at the question at the time. I’d seen charity work in action, had meet UNHCR staff absolutely committed to their jobs (though they are the ones most criticized) but sometimes you do wonder what on earth would happen if there weren’t international aid organizations to help build schools, and simply keep people alive?
Saying that though, I am absolutely in support of people and charities who have intimate understanding of the most important issues plaguing a region, and those who devote their lives to others.
The toughest lady I’ve ever met is one of these people, working in Darfur currently. I’ll never forget the last time I saw her, standing at the gate of the guest house. The rest of us were dressed up and giddy. We were off to a colonial-era tea farm outside Nairobi for my boss’s glamorous 30th birthday party. But Osiris, my former-roommate, ex-nun, Panamanian friend, rather, was waiting to return to her post in Melit, Darfur. It had been a difficult transition for her, as she had been teaching herself English, and now had to switch to Arabic, not to mention that she was the only non-African woman working at her post, as the woman previously working there had been threatened with kidnap. When I met her in Nairobi then she was worn out but resilient.
“My health is not good,” she said. “Security is very bad too. But I love the people. I will go back.”
So there she stood, waiting to go back to Darfur by herself, while the rest of us readied for day-drinking and strolling through fields of tea. The look on her face was not of jealousy, but of terrified, quiet, resignation. I knew she was fighting back the thought I knew so well,
Why am I doing this to myself?
It’s the thought that comes from so many nights alone under a mosquito net, so many mornings waking to realize you are in fact still in an unknown land.
She is very tough.
So now, in safe little pleasantville Lincoln, I’m reading as much as I can about that big wild continent. And trying to understand it a little more, one year later.