out of africa

From what seemed like a daunting amount of time and a long journey ahead of me, I sit and reflect on all the misconceptions and adventures I've had. Three months have disappeared: each country and each city a chapter that quickly obscures the last, gently nudging time into overdrive, and placing yesterday's experiences in some distant time warp. It seems like a few lifetimes ago since I captured my first glimpse of those dusty Dakar streets from my porthole window on swissair flight 42. I remember how out of water I was, and looking back, how it truly was the most dangerous and unappetizing of all the cities. It had to be my first! But I feel as though I experienced Dakar as a child, of another generation, and now I'm all grown up. Certainly sitting in Abidjan, after a day of wandering these streets, I feel a seasoned west african traveler, willing and able to take on anything. Abidjan, which everyone said was the scariest and most dangerous of all, seems like a comfortable, friendly, sophisticated place to live. I just have to work out whether the myths about Abidjan are all false, or whether I have changed in some way -- having adapted to life out here so that I feel more comfortable and at ease in the middle of it. In that sense, perhaps if my journey was reversed, I would feel horrible about Abidjan and at ease in Dakar? No, somehow I can't believe I was that wrong about Dakar.

Looking back, as I sip my ice-cold beer in the intercontinental lobby of luxury, I consider what I've learned, what I've taught, and what I've enjoyed. An anthropologist at heart (and by training) I analyze everything. This morning, as I wandered through the streets of Treichville (what the guide books call the poor "african" quarter of Abidjan and supposedly the most dangerous) I'm comparing life here to Senegal, Mali, Burkina and Ghana. Why is no one staring at me as they did in Bamako? Why do they not smile like the Ghanaians when you catch their eye? Why is no one running after me trying to befriend me and then hustle me like Dakar? What are the economic/social factors that cause people to have different attitudes? Abidjan seems so cosmopolitan and wealthy in comparison to the other cities, but it still shares that Dickensian feel that goes with these vast West African metropolises. The streets seem split into a thousand small industries, with people defined by their work -- the water sellers constantly calling attention to the bowl of water-filled plastic bags on their heads, the tailors all bare-chested with tape measures hanging around their necks plowing fabrics with their worn and whirring sewing machines, the sellers of charcoal all coated in dust. Tiny vertical segments of the market thrive on the street, under your feet -- a division of labor that's invisible back home. And always, everywhere, you've got the little bandits running around in rags (mostly harmless), rolling wheels with sticks, carrying tea, changing money, playing around disused cars... and the most heart-wrenching sight of young teenagers out in-between cars hawking tissues, toilet paper, fluorescent tubes, lamps, earbuds -- some of the most bizarre and worthless items. All day, all year, under the sun, between the cars -- pushing, pushing, selling. They work hard, they're persistent, they run between cars -- you don't see them sitting idle by the road. They want to work. They want to earn. And all this valuable time lost, while they should be in school, learning to lift themselves out of this cycle of poverty.

The cities were a disappointment, the countryside an inspiration. Wherever you seemed to penetrate a world not hardened by city-life or tourism, then I think I stumbled across the massive heart of africa. Beating, smiling, laughing, inviting, shy. To come to this continent, to put yourself at the mercy of African curiosity, to make the effort to get out and off the beaten path, to joke with the africans... what you'll find is a spirit of human generosity, innocence, patience, that humbles you. Somehow, someway, sitting under the freedom of an african night, eating with them, sharing stories about worlds, listening to the struggle -- teasing eachother. You almost feel you're touching the purist of human spirits. It's a connection, and I wonder if all of you would find it too. If you would, you should come. It rounds you out, slows you down, makes you think of the earth, of subsistence, of poverty, of truths, of spirits, of wealth, of false gods. Sentimental: yes; precisely.

Looking back, I think of my disappointment and fear in Dakar. Of my difficulty making friends there. I think of the constant challenge, so terrible in Dakar, of being open to people but closed to hustlers. How to tell the difference? Rarely was I rude to the wrong person, but when you are, it's shameful, and you curse those that hardened you. I remember the massive Beobab forests in Senegal, the lost city of St. Louis, the crowd that almost lynched me, the friends that invited me to share some days with them and their friends. Of being thrown out of nightclubs, of picnics on islands, of strange hostile looks. I think of so many things that flood back, you'll have to read through. But I remember poverty, everywhere. I remember asking myself and them what to do. I remember bargaining people out of $1 profits in the market while staying at $70 hotels. I witnessed people struggling everywhere. All trying to work. I didn't see despair, only hope. I didn't see people giving up, or finished or depressed or uninspired. I witnessed energy and desire. I witnessed a longing for America that was inversely related to the wealth of each country.

I remember getting trapped in the backwaters of senegal, relying on llittle pickup trucks and broken down minibuses to get us 200km in 12 hours and almost not being able to get out of bed the next day my back ached so much. I remember meeting young men in search of work -- leaving families and traveling thousands of miles out of a sense of duty, desperation, and bravery. Alone. With no money. Migrating from Gambia to Mali, or from Nigeria to Morocco. Great pioneers of hope in a continent of adversity. I recall the dust, the hot rocks, the burnt deserts, radiating their heat and baking me in bursts of oven-temperature winds. I remember countless conversations about America and how I tried to explain what I recognized as the differences and the myths and always sliding into poor stereotypes. I remember how awkwardly I ate with my hand as twelve of us sat around a communal lunch bowl. I remember the constant offer to share food, drink and conversation. The constant curiosity of men who whistled at me and beckoned me over officiously -- demanding to know what I was doing and where I was going. How you have to joust over politics, taxi fares, religion -- defusing police, hustlers and enemies alike with the challenge of a smile. I remember the dance of masks, showering out of buckets under the stars, mobbed by children catching their first glimpse of white, arguing with thieves, bouncing around on the back of mopeds, getting trapped in the great tentacles of african bureaucracy, lying under waterfalls, taking tea, swimming in the great, tight, treacherous sea.

I'm now on the eurostar train from Paris to London hovering above manicured green fields at some supernatural speed. Back in europe after a week in the truly awe-inspiring Paris. I see how the french colonials shaped avenues and parks in africa, and how the English shamefully neglected theirs. I think I see an equality between worlds I never saw before. How different situations have bred different environments, but how similar our instincts are. Perhaps I'll lose this enthusiasm, but for now, life won't be complete without living in africa for just a short while.