Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Africa Lite" and other myths

Once upon a time, in disconnected moments and mixed up places, fragments of a story murmured through the thoughts and questions and dreams of a jumbled world.  It was a story of somewhere else in some other time and some other way of being - an origin story, alive in the present, which all seemed to know but none had seen.  A myth.

A Moroccan colleague at a school in Casablanca found out that I had grown up in Congo and Cote d'Ivoire.  We sat together in djellabas enjoying lemon-chicken tajine with hennaed hands and she looked at me with wide eyes and a smile and asked, "What was it like in Africa?"

A school director offered me a job.  "We would love to have you come teach at our school in Nairobi.  You need to know though, Kenya is 'Africa Lite'.  Like a light beer.  It's not as heavy as other places in Africa.  Easier to live here.  But with all your experience in 'real Africa' I'm sure you'll be fine." I just smiled slowly and nodded.  "Thanks ..."  

A famous South African comedian asked an audience member if he had ever been out into Africa.  The audience began to laugh.  "No, no!  The reason I say 'into Africa' is because this ... is not Africa ... No, no, this is 'Africa Light' guys.  Don't get it twisted.  When I say 'Africa' I mean AFRICA Africa - no jokes people."

Not so long ago, on a trip to Harare, I fell into conversation with a Cuban-born Spanish-Bulgarian who had been raised in Zimbabwe.  "So how are things in Kenya?" he asked.  "I was in Mombassa about 20 years ago.  I bet you get more of the real Africa there.  At least, that's what I remember."  As he began to reminisce about bright beaches and wide plains and open-air markets, his voice seemed to fade and my mind got stuck.  

REAL AFRICA ... What is this story that everyone seems to know or want to know?  Where does it come from?  In Morocco, it is beyond the deserts.  In Nairobi it is beyond the cities.  In South Africa it is north towards Botswana and Zimbabwe.  But in Zimbabwe?  What could be more "real" than Zimbabwe?  And yet the gaze looks ever out.  Even that which is 'real' is still light compared to something else that is more real.  But what is it?  Where is it?  Tourists believe they've found it.   Long-time residents wonder where it has gone.  Locals wonder what it is or ever was.  

Where is the Real Africa?  What is this story?  Who was the first to whisper it into the global imagination?  To give it interchangeable names and places and call it One?  Perhaps it was a story that the first visitors told the rest of the world and it rippled through generations of memory while the story itself continued to change.  The One Story split and spun into a thousand new stories, but these children of the One look so different from the first that they are dismissed as echoes, invalidated as empty reverberations and left behind in the search for the source: the imagined One and the only Real.

But the Real is now and it is many.  It is desert and mountain, jungle trekking and snow skiing.  It is savannas with wildlife and poachers and cities spreading in all directions towards the parks and fancy tourist camps and nomadic herders wearing bright beads and robes with cell phones tucked in the folds who drive their cattle along the fences that trace the open land.  It is small villages of mud-dung huts with corrugated tin roofs owned by farmers who grow less food so they can grow more tobacco which they sell to one multi-national supply chain in order to pay off their debts to the another and buy the food they did not grow with what is left.  It is vibrant cities with beautiful buildings and banks and bars and rhythms of traffic so dense that walking three miles is faster than driving.  It is freedom fighters and dictators and multinational corporations, businessmen and political women and village chiefs.  It is ancient stone churches and temples and high priests of new orders, masked dances and trances and urban rave scenes with synthetic-drug runners.  It is fourth- and fifth-generation immigrants who still have to explain their presence and foreign-educated nationals who do not speak the language of their families.   It is shopping malls and open-air markets, overflowing with cheap imports and expensive donations.  It is vegetable vendors and curio shops, post-modern artists and international musicians, hand drums and electric guitars.  It is child soldiers and child inventors, warlords and technocrats, rural volunteer doctors and manipulative pharmaceuticals, strange diseases and preventable deaths.  It is creative, persistent life.

There is no One.  The Real is now as it always was - a tapestry of stories.  Unraveled and respun, you may find her threads, but never the first nor the first whole.  It is many threads of many colors spinning ever together and apart.  No thread's color, warp or weft makes any other's less true.  You cannot grasp a thread and call it the whole.  Nor can you know the whole without tracing its threads and discovering the array.  The One is many, it is never the same, and it is as Real as the moment in which it lives - that is now.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving in motion

Where there is thankfulness, there is no room for anger or bitterness or confusion.  It is the surest remedy against disappointment or disillusion; it calms the heart in the midst of pain; it clears mind fogged in by self-pity.  Thankfulness forces us to look beyond what is wrong and discover what is right.  There are gifts all around if we are willing to find them.

My commute to school and back takes a good chunk of time.  On a normal day, when trains are running on schedule, it's just under two hours from my door to school and back again:
Walk to the station - train to the city - switch to the tube - up to the street - walk to the school
Back to the street - down to the tube - switch to the train - train to the station - walk to the house.

There are times when the experience is less than awesome.  Overcrowded train cars, busy stations and crowded streets where people bump into you or cut you off or walk too slowly, frustrating traffic light systems, smokers getting in their cigs before work rushing by in both directions - there are moments that I don't love.  But that's not the whole story.  When I stop to look again, there is beauty.  There are little sights that make me smile along the way.  I am thankful for these.  I decided to take my camera along one day to capture moments from my commute that I enjoy.  For security reasons, I'm not allowed to take pictures inside of train stations, so what's below is not a representative sample.  Still, each shot is something I enjoy on a regular basis.

On my way to the train station.  The sun comes up and
casts a soft light on the hard symmetry of my neighborhood.

There are strong lines (shapes and edges) everywhere in big cities.
For some reason, I really like the web effect created by this system
of electrical lines.  Especially when the sky is a sharp blue.

A gentler kind of web.  The fall colors are mostly done now,
but I enjoyed them while they lasted.  My commute usually takes
me by a couple of small parks.  It was fun to tromp through the
leaves on the path and soak in the colors while they changed.

Sometimes I walk by buildings with inspiring things like this in the window.
Can you even imagine what our day-to-day lives would be like if glasses did not exist?
How many of us would not be able to work?
Or would have to choose different jobs?
Human creativity has powerful potential.

One thing about very old cities - there are lots of random relics to discover.
London has plenty of statues and plaques and stone remnants - bits and
pieces that have survived the flood of time.  This particular guy is not so old,
but he is interesting.  I walk by him often and have no idea what exactly
he's holding, but he does make me smile.

Do you see the monkey in the tree?  He doesn't seem to
mind the wet and cold of London.

Home again.  This old man lives above my door and under my window.
He looks a little stern, but he's usually happy to see me back safe and warm.  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A swirling vortex of bureaucratic misery

I have always loved the comic Asterix and Obelix.  Two independent, funny-looking characters defying entire armies with a grin and then stopping to smell the flowers on their way home - what's not to love?  One of my favorite strips is from The Twelve Tasks of Hercules.  "The place that sends you mad" is the epicenter of Roman bureaucracy, a vortex of inane paper-pushing designed to suck the life out of any soul that tries to traverse its tangle.  Their only task: obtain Permit #838.  Seems so straightforward ... oh, how little they know!  If you've never seen the clip, you should watch it.  Here is the link.  Go ahead.  I'll wait ten minutes.

And there you have it - my life for the last month.  Caught in an endless circle of "in order to do this you need that, and in order to do that you need this" - up, down, back, forth, stay there, don't move.  Don't believe me?  Here we go ...

In order to study in London, you need a student visa.
In order to get a student visa you have to fill out an application, gather all manner of marginally relevant documents, take some photos, and make an appointment for an interview and biometrics session.  DONE.

I book the appointment and show up thirty minutes early.  The security guard stops me before the front door.
"Where is your proof of appointment?"
"Proof of appointment?"
"Yes, the paper with the barcode on it."
"I don't know which that is."
"Well, you'll need it to get inside."
"I don't have a way to print at home.  Is there somewhere close I can go?"
"Yes, the travel agency in the building next door.  Just ask them."
I nervously make my way to the building next door.  The polite man at the counter nods knowingly and opens up the website, asks me to log in to my account and prints the page for me.  I thank him profusely and hurry back to the visa interview office.  It is now ten minutes before my scheduled 1:30pm appointment, and this time the guard lets me in.  I get to the front door and another guard has me sign in on a large ledger before pointing me to the appropriate line.  After about 15 minutes, I'm at the front.
"Do you have your application?"  I hand the young man my packet of documents.  "Where is your TB screening certificate?"  TB certificate?
"I ... I didn't know I needed one ... what exactly do you mean?"
"If you are going to be in the UK for more than six months, you must be screened for TB.  And where is the self-assessment form?"
"What is the self-assessment form?"
"It's a form that looks like this," he holds up an example, "You can ask the guard back there to help you with that."  He looks down again and studies the passport-sized photos I had attached.  "This photo is not on a white background."  I furrow my brow at the picture and he looks up at me.  "Would you say that is white?"  It's almost white, but more cream or beige.  Not as white as the counter it was sitting on.
"Mmm ... I thought it was ... but I guess not."
The young man looks up at me with an air of tired finality.  "You will need the TB certificate, the self-assessment form, and new pictures."
I stare at him, my mouth slightly open, a hopelessly bewildered look in my eyes.  "And how am I supposed to do that?  My appointment is for right now."
"The TB must be done at the IOM."
"What is that?"
"Hmm, not sure.  International ... don't know.  Anyway, you have to go to the IOM in Gigiri for the screening.  The self-assessment you can do here."  I glance at the clock as he sighs.  "If you really hurry, sometimes - not always, but sometimes - they can do the screening in fifteen minutes.  If you are back before three, we can still get you in today."
"And if I'm not back before three?"  He didn't answer, just smiled.

And so began the swirl of the vortex.

Find the International Organization of Migration (IOM).
Find a place to park.
Get inside and find the right window.
Have you paid?  No.  Payments are made at a bank in the mall up the street.  (WHAT?!)
Go to the mall and find the bank.
Get cash and make the payment.
Get some new passport pics while in the mall - make sure the background is really white.
Go back to the IOM.
Submit the bank receipt to the cashier.
Wait for a counselor to call my name.
Listen to a short counseling session on TB screening.
Wait for the doctor to call my name.
Get my chest x-rayed.
Wait for a different doctor to call my name.
Go over the x-ray results while he signs my new certificate.
Wait for the nurses to finish preparing and explaining the documents
Go home ... because all of that did NOT take fifteen minutes.
By the time I was done at the IOM there was no point going back to the visa office - it was most certainly closed.  I went home and spent a night stressing that I had missed my appointment and that there was no way to schedule a new appointment on the website and that maybe I would have to resubmit a whole new application.  Sleep did not come easy.  

The next morning I went back prepared to beg and somehow it worked.  The guards eventually let me back in and the young man behind the white counter recognized me, gave another tired sigh and asked why I hadn't come back before three.  Then it was take a number, wait to be called, go over papers, give fingerprints, go home, come back later, take another number, wait to be called, answer interview questions, go home, and wait for an email saying when to come back and pick up the finalized passport.  

The visa in hand was a huge relief, and once I picked it up I thought the worst was behind me. I should have known it was only the beginning.

I landed in London two weeks early just to get settled.  I wanted to get a phone and a bank account, begin organizing my room and exploring my neighborhood, get a student Oyster card (for London transit systems) and go exploring central London all before classes started.  However, no matter which end I tried to tackle first, I hit new and frustrating roadblocks.

In order to get a monthly phone contract (cheaper than top up), I need a bank account with a local address.
In order to get a student Oyster card, I need BOTH a local bank account and a student enrollment number.
In order to get a local bank account, I need a proof of address.
In order to get a proof of address, I need my school to send me a proof of enrollment through the mail.
In order to get a proof of enrollment from the school mailed to my new address, I need to complete my enrollment - pay the school fees and register for classes.
In order to finish my enrollment, I need my bank in the US to send the money to the school here ... which they won't do by wire transfer because I am not physically present at one of their branches.

Discovering each of these pieces took several days.  I would request one piece and wait for it, only to find out several days later that there was a prerequisite piece.  Then it would be the weekend and I'd have to wait until Monday to continue.  At the end of the two weeks I had allotted to "settling", I had gotten only as far as exploring my neighborhood and poking around central London.  This last week has yielded a bit more progress though - I finally figured out how to pay my school fees.  Now I'm waiting on that pesky "proof of enrollment" to come through the mail.  Once that lands on my doorstep, I hope I'll be able to quickly knock out the rest of the pieces of the chain.  Oh how I hate the bureaucratic logistics of life!

Classes start tomorrow and I am very much looking forward to the relative simplicity of that piece of life - go to lectures and seminars, read books, write papers, take tests.  So straightforward.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Would you rather ...

... spend 12 hours stuck in traffic or 2 days stuck in an airport?  

Wednesday, September 3rd
(My last night in Nairobi)

The road from Westlands to the center of Nairobi is not a long road.  On a clear Sunday morning it might take eight to ten minutes to drive between the two.  Any other time, however ... not so quick or predictable.  Especially when the skies are raining or big-wigs are hobnobbing. 

I had a tightly packed schedule on this particular Wednesday: sell the car, organize the documents, give all the official things to the appropriate people, finish packing for London, have dinner at some friends' house, go with different friends to see another friend's theatre piece, come home in time to catch a cab to the airport, fly to London.  All day, the plan flowed along as sweet and smooth as chocolate on hot toast.  I confirmed the buyer and dealt with the car documents while saying goodbyes to people along the way.  I finished packing and even had time for a hot shower and a short rest.  I found the Sawant's new apartment and had delicious chicken curry with lots of fixings for dinner.  Then, with many apologies for a rushed farewell meal, I was off to the reprisal of John-Sibi's most recent show - a one-woman French play about an African woman's life abroad and at home.  I had missed it when it originally opened; this revival was my last shot to see it live and hug him and his family before leaving.  

Marjanne and Misha guestimated traffic flow based on time of day and amount of evening drizzle, and picked me up at 6:00pm - an hour before the show time.  We "aggressively negotiated" our way through Westlands and merged with the highway in about twenty minutes.  That wasn't so bad, we thought.  We might get there in time.  And just then, we stopped.  We found ourselves at a dead standstill in the center of five lanes that should have been four, boxed in by large trucks on three sides. We couldn't see if there was an accident ahead or if it was just normal heavy traffic, so we laughed and chatted and waited.  John-Sibi texted to say they were pushing back the start time 20-30 minutes.  Apparently we weren't the only ones running late.  An hour later we had moved all of 50 yards, but the trucks had changed lanes.  We could see around the bend and down the hill, but was the view really better?  The road ahead of us was flooded with break lights all the way to the distant skyscrapers.  We would not make the opening, or even the first half.  We got there in the end but it was 8:15 before we snuck in the back of the theatre, just in time for the emotional final scenes.  

Two hours to go three miles - it has been several years since I have sat in traffic that ridiculous.  If only we had known that evening that the skies and the big-wigs had conspired against us, we might have made a different plan.  The temptation to be stressed and frustrated skirted around the edges of our thoughts, and yet ... 

We laughed and told stories and talked about school.  I thought of all the other special traffic jams I've experienced in Nairobi.  I thought of how much the road has changed in six years and I turned over all the memories tied to that particular stretch.  Accidents and breakdowns and late nights and rainy days and more traffic and mystery mechanics all had a common theme.  Each memory was a story of people - people who rescued me, who endured and laughed with me, people who pushed through to get to me.  From there, my thoughts wandered through all the other special trips and experiences that have happened in Kenya, many of them recorded here.  So many adventures, and threaded through all of them - people.  Many wonderful people.  As we sat there laughing and chatting in a sea of diesel fumes and tail lights, my heart was filled with thanks - for people, for adventures, for the people in my adventures.   

Another friend and I, on another adventure, recently passed the time with a game of "Would You Rather".  The question at the top of this post was one of the features.  At the time, I thought I'd prefer the traffic over the airport, but as we inched our way forward that last night in Nairobi I found my real answer.  

With the right people to share the adventure, I would take both twice over.