Gettleman’s Gilligans

Gettleman’s Gilligans

gettlemansbookLast spring my favorite African journalist of all time (I actually think he outdid Stanley) published a memoir, Love-Africa, that so disappointed me I’ve taken quite a long time to think about before writing this.

It was actually way beyond disappointment. I questioned my own perspectives on Africa, wondering if I could be fooling myself as much as the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman fooled himself, and by extension, me. Was at least some of his impactful African reporting that so deeply effected me (and thank goodness, from time to time, Congress) a sham for his own self-aggrandizement? It’s complicated. But it’s time to say something.

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Politics or People?

Politics or People?

Donald-TrumpYou probably have no idea what an illegal immigrant is.

You’ve heard of course of the hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners and North Africans sailing to Greece to get to Macedonia to get to Serbia to get ultimately and mostly to Germany.

You might even know of a nearly equal number from west and North Africa seeking asylum in France, because they’re native French-speakers.

You’ve probably given a slight ear to news reports about all the political fighting going on right now in Europe and especially Greece and Italy about what to do with the (yes) millions of immigrants who’ve besieged those countries in the last decade.

But do you know anything about these people? These individuals? Whether you want to call them refugees or illegals or desperados or whatever, do you have any idea what these people are really like?

You’d be surprised.

Check this out: an aggressive German journalist is right now traveling with a group of refugees from Aleppo trying to illegally get into Germany. Follow him on Twitter and Periscope by clicking here.

This is real-time journalism and here’s what you’ll find out about these refugees:

1. They’re rich.
2. They’re educated.
3. They’re young.
4. Most are professionals.

And that’s as true for a Libyan or Zimbabwean as a Syrian. There’s an incredible similarity between these fleeing peoples whether they are starving Guatemalans trying to enter the U.S. for a meal, or professionals fleeing bombs from war-torn Libya into France.

If you remove any one of the first three of those characteristics of a typical refugee listed above, they’d never make the journey.

It’s ridiculously expensive for a refugee. Many illegal immigrants from Central America pay upwards of $20,000 to get help sneaking into Texas.

It’s true all over the world.

Only an educated person who can read and speak multiple languages, navigate signs and maps and figure out the necessary deception and convincing to get past authorities has a chance of making it.

It’s strenuous. There’s a lot of walking, bushwacking, sleep deprivation … few but young people are capable of this.

But why professionals? Because in a stressed society, they suffer the most. They’ve made the greatest investment in their lives and are enjoying no return.

Richard Dowden of the Royal African Society has been writing about African refugees for years: “This is not a new problem. It is called globalisation,” he reminds us.

I’ve also written about refugees from northern Africa fleeing to South Africa. See that reference for my profile of Hemadet, shown in the picture above opposite Donald Trump. In fact in that blogpost several years ago I asked, “how soon will there be millions?”

Well, there are right now.

So rethink this refugee, illegal immigrant issue, please! These are not rapists, murders and criminals. A single one of them probably has greater personal character and life accomplishment than the entire bunch of politicians now quibbling over them.

And if borders were thrown wide open and all these people welcomed without question, they’d probably solve all our problems a lot quicker than we’ll ever be able to do ourselves.

Vicious Village Visit

Vicious Village Visit

Why do so many safari travelers want to “see a village?” A Paris exhibition may help explain the ugly urge of many travelers to witness depravity.

The market for village visits is so strong that even today, when traditional villages just don’t exist, they are being reconstructed, and thousands of visitors return from Africa every day believing they have seen “an African village” in exactly the same way conservatives leave church each Sunday believing Satan is a Muslim.

In the early boom days of photography safari travel (1960s and 1970s) “visiting a village” was an absolutely essential ingredient of any trip and I admit having arranged hundreds. “The Invention of Human Zoos” is a brilliant exhibition in the new Quai Branly museum that helped me to understand why.

“Act I” of the exhibition chronicles the excitement and amazement of Europeans who “discovered” such new and different peoples around the world starting in the 15th century. This “otherness,” as the exhibit calls it, was a driving force for early exploration.

Brazilian Tupinambas prostrating before Henri II in Rouen in 1550, Siamese twins in the Court of Versailles in 1686, Inuits overdressed before Frederik II in Copenhagen in 1654, and the famous “Noble Savage” Omai that Captain Cook brought to England from Tahiti in 1774 were some of the first and most famous.

There was no community exhibitionism in these early moments. It was just exhilaration at finding something so different from yourself! I hope this at least partly explains myself as a young “explorer” anxious to show clients African villages in the early days.

Omai was real; Kenyan villages in the Northern Frontier were real in the 1970s.

As the age of exploration matured, “Act II” of the exhibit details how this surprise at “otherness” grows defensive. Surprise doesn’t last. The reality sets in that this “otherness” isn’t very pleasing, because it’s filled with misery. But what to do? Go out and civilize the world when we’ve got so many problems to deal with here at home?

So “otherness” becomes “wrong” or “bad” or “evil.”

Circuses, traveling villages and freak shows worldwide marketed this rationalization by “blurring the difference between the deformed and the foreign.” Soon “physical, psychological and geographical abnormalities” sold tickets.

By the 1980s and certainly 1990s Africa was developing as fast as information technology. Primitive people weren’t primitive, anymore. But primitive and “savage” and “diseased” and “deprived” were the “physical, psychological and geographical abnormalities” that could still get tourists to pay.

So easily predicted these “villages” suddenly existed right next to very swank tourist lodges and camps. “Maasai villages” which in their original form never existed longer than the rains which fell on them for a single season, suddenly were in place for decades.

“Act III” of the exhibit describes the Crystal Palace, Barnum and Bailey, Paris Folies Bergères and Berlin’s Panoptikum where visitors are thrilled by “acts of savageness” from supposed aboriginals, ‘lip-plate women’, Amazons, snake charmers, Japanese tightrope walkers and oriental belly dancers, all of whom were “made-up savages” – professional actors, not real individuals.

Exactly as in Africa, today.

One of the real catastrophes this produces in Africa is that real depravity is created where it would otherwise not exist. When traditional villages moved regularly, as most did and certainly the Maasai and Samburu always did in the early days, opportunities for disease were lessened.

Imagine today’s so-called “Maasai village” outside Samburu Lodge or Serena Lodge after one year, two years, five years and then ten years without adequate septic systems.

(The final “Act IV” is more oblique and less relevant to Africa, I think. The extreme circus and freak show begins to merge “otherness” with physical abnormality. Indeed, the rise of Felini may be an important phenomenon worth examining, but its relevance to visiting a village in Africa is slight.)

There is, however, an Act IV today in Africa.

There is this inexplicable, basest urge by travelers to Africa to see “primitive” and “depraved” and the market reigns with these reconstructed villages more than ever. If there weren’t tourists paying to see them, they wouldn’t be there.

Thousands of safari travelers, egged on even more by immoral tour companies, regularly “want to see a village.”

What do travelers really mean when they ask for that? What they mean is that they want to see poverty, disease and depravation. In a nutshell, suffering. First off, why the hell would you want to see something like that? To disabuse yourself that it might not be true?

Alas the danger with that generous presumption.

Any half educated idiot walking into one of these should be able to tell by the facility of languages the “chief” commands, the perfect and untattered costuming, rushed routine and proforma narratives, that this is a show, not a lifestyle.

So that at least subconsciously the visitor can return at least subconsciously unconvinced that suffering exists. Or has to. Or that he has any responsibility to end it.

I was absolutely incensed recently by the “Mad Travelers” Kevin Revolinsk’s “Visit to a Maasai Village”. It’s below disgusting; it’s despicable. Yet this is a popular guy, widely published and validated by much of the established media like the New York Times and National Geographic.

And I’m sure there are many more examples as Revolting as Revolinsk.

Don’t be fooled, traveler. The misery is there, beyond your imagination. But it doesn’t exist in the flies unnecessarily flitting on the poor little kid’s face, but with the internal pain of the mother who plasters a bit of cow dung on her child’s head just before the tourists arrive… because she can’t get a job in the city.

Let’s end Act IV.

So You Want to Write on Africa…

So You Want to Write on Africa…

by Conor Godfrey on March 17, 2011

I was going to continue exploring why some people, or states, support pariah regimes (this time with a more sympathetic view towards the supporters), but I was side tracked by a wonderful article from GRANTA magazine entitled “How to Write About Africa”. (The article is actually from a while back)

Please read it. It is not so long, and it will make you laugh, and maybe cry a little on the inside.

“How to Write About Africa” is a spoof how-to for would be journalists or novelists writing on Africa.

It offers advice like; “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize.

An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these.”

These are taboos; “ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation”.

One last excerpt.

After forbidding would-be writers to discuss normal African family life or run-of-the mill dreams and ambitions, the author states that…”Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters.

They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires.

They also have family values: see how lions teach their children?

Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas.

Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla.”

You get the idea.

In the last few years I think serious journalists have begun to realize their Africa play book was not only out of date; it was absurd.

African authors, inventors, artists and other public figures have brought actual African perspectives to the fore, and BBC and RFI programs on Africa now routinely feature African commentators. From time to time BBCs African perspective podcast is quite good.

I remember the first time an African-American friend of mine took me through Disney movies and pointed out how all the lazy, slovenly but good natured characters with bad diction had southern African American accents, all the hyper, overly risky and violent prone characters had Latin American accents, and suspicious, shifty eyed traders inevitably sounded Middle Eastern.

I wondered how my entire childhood this blatant negative stereotyping escaped me….

(By the way- Disney heard this criticism loud and clear, their modern stuff has been much better. But if you haven’t been given this tour, go back and check out the classics like Jungle Book, Dumbo, Aristocats, Aladdin, the Little Mermaid…you will cringe.)

I get that same feeling now when I read articles on Africa that fit the GRANTA piece’s spoof advice.

But Africa writing has come a long way in the last five or so years…

This is what New York Times writing on health looked like in 2004.

This is the tone of 2010.

This is what an article on African education looked like in 2004.

This is what it looked like in 2010.

I am obviously cherry-picking from hundreds of articles, but in my opinion these are reasonably representative samples.

When you read the 2004 pieces you might say- “well how can someone talk about this awful situation, be it health or education, in a positive way?”

That is not the journalist’s job. The state of health and education in many African countries was, and still is, in need of serious work.

But in 2004 the journalists rolled around and wallowed in the helplessness and misery of it all.

The 2010 pieces touched on the barriers to health and education, and then went on to evaluate what people are doing about it.

In other words, I am not asking that people write only positive articles about Africa, simply that they use the same intellectual and investigative tools that they apply to other regions of the world.

A nuanced description of the problem- a 3d portrait of some of the people it affects—a briefing on the obstacles—and an overview of how people/institutions are dealing with it.

Spare me the wallowing.

As always, I am exempting the horrible situations in some conflict zones where misery over-rides other aspects of life. These are, thankfully, few and far between.