A Week In Africa
I didn’t know I was being yelled at. When you are in a foreign country, you tune out any shouting that isn’t in a language you understand.
We didn’t know anyone in town, so no one had a reason to shout at us in the dark. The shouting continued, though, so I looked up.
The man in front of us had leveled an AK-47 straight at my chest.
So, I was being shouted at, after all. The two of us, the only white guys in all of Addis Ababa, it seemed, put our hands up. The man used the barrel of his assault rifle to point us toward the street. This wasn’t in our plan.
We stood in the hotel lobby waiting for our handlers. Across from us two men were talking. One of them had the easy, relaxed vibe of a man who has a certain security others lack. A girl sat with him, seeming impossibly young and thin for her company. She was ignored, but it was obvious she was with the men, almost like a pet. Or property.
Finally, our hosts arrived and walked across the polished tile of the low, dark lobby. Though it was now a sunny bright morning outside, and our lobby didn’t have an armed guard in it, we kept thinking about last night. It turned out we had accidentally spooked the night guard at a bank last night when we had gone out to find a late evening beer. I would say he spooked us too.
There were the usual pleasantries we were coming to expect every morning. Then it was out to the truck. We only had to walk 10 yards to the truck, but that was enough time. Kids sent to beg and sell gum were all over us. “No, thank you, no, no thank you, not today” from us. “Why don’t you want to help me?” from them.
We piled in the dusty blue Ford pickup. Every morning I wondered why they didn’t sell trucks like this in the States. It was like a Ranger, but four doors, a diesel engine and … better. It had to be, though. This was Africa.
My entry into Addis Ababa had been jarring. From the moment we stepped off the plane it was obvious we were very different. Not targets, exactly, but noticed by everyone, everywhere. Always. From the jetway to passport control to customs to crossing out of the arrivals gate, the trappings of familiar western life had fallen away step by step.
I will never forget walking out of the airport under the sodium street lights that first night. I didn’t even know what temperature it would be or how humid, I had dropped from the sky in my shiny capsule blasted from the other side of the world, the last scent of a cappuccino from the Lufthansa lounge still on my clothes when we had taken off.
When I stepped out of that airport and into Africa for the first time, I was overwhelmed by a sensation that shouldered aside the temperature or humidity. (It was slightly cool, and a little damp, by the way.) What struck me was something I could not define in the moment, but would later come to love. It was the smell of the developing world.
It will sound strange to those who don’t know it, but there is a scent I have encountered throughout the developing world. It Is not one odor, but a conglomeration of so many of the things that make life what it is in the places capitalism hasn’t already swallowed whole. Walking away from that white facade of the airport into the night, I was surrounded by the mingled smells of unrefined diesel, motorcycle engines, distant trash fires and the faint whisps of tantalizing street food being cooked … everywhere.
By the time I was fast-walking it to that blue truck parked at our hotel, I had been in Africa for a week. Each day had been a blur of coffee, handshakes, meetings, more coffee, earnest pleas and piles upon piles of the most amazing food than I could possibly eat.
“We want the world to know how good the food of Ethiopia is.” Our hosts would tell us again and again. “Everyone thinks there is still a famine here. That was the 90s when the Communists were in charge. That was decades ago.” He would say, ordering another tray of food for the table even though we had not made it through the first one.
As a white westerner, it is impossible not to feel different or a little out of place when you are in Africa. There is no denying the wealth gap, the politics, the history. Many times in that week we had been told how the Italians had tried to colonize Ethiopia and failed. I could not fault our hosts for that justifiable point of pride.
On our long drives around the countryside visiting the people at churches we came to meet, we talked for hours about the state of the world and what would help Africa get out of the place she was in. It was 2008, and I can still see the excitement in the eyes of the one Kenyan who accompanied us. “Obama is going to be in the White House, you know. His parents are from Kenya. This means anything is possible.” You knew he believed it to his core.
Travel, though, is nothing if you don’t let it show you that people are people, no matter where you go. I had heard this, and I would have said I believed it from the comfort of Colorado, but it took on a new meaning as we sat around a table laden with piles of unrecognizable meats and pungent vegetables. Around the low table, we all sat forward off the edges of our woven chairs, each person dangling their right (always the right!) hand in space, fingertips covered with grease or gently holding a bit of injera between bites. Sharing food … not just being fed, but sharing it is miraculous for opening your eyes.
Food can also be miraculous for opening other things. I was lucky, but my travel partner was not. On day four he was laid low by something. There was no telling what it had been, so many of our meals were the same communal fare. Whatever bacteriological bullet had hit him square in the stomach had not even grazed me, but I wondered at every meal when my number would be up. People may be people everywhere, but our colons don’t live life on such egalitarian terms.
Sharing food can bring people together, but it was the sometimes dark humor of our Ethiopian guides that melted barriers for me. The Ethiopian highways were plagued then, and may still be, by long-haul truckers kept awake by qhat shoved in their cheeks. Coked out of their minds driving for 18 hours straight, these drivers would simply lose consciousness at the wheel, with disastrous consequences. In Africa, the road is for everyone, whether you are a truck with somewhere to be, a cow with nowhere in particular that interests you, or a line of school children coming home chewing on sugar cane in the afternoon sun. It didn’t take much imagination to see what a danger these trucks posed.
“There goes one.” Our driver pointed out, indicating a propane truck careening past the other way. “They are so dangerous.” He clicked his tongue in disgust. “We have a name for them because they kill so many … we call them Al Queda.”
The longer we stayed in and around Addis, and the more we listened, we heard the dreams of the people whose job it was to escort these two mazungus around and wine and dine us. Or at least fill us with coffee five times a day. I was struck by the sensitive, subtle understanding of Ethiopia’s internal struggles, but also her place in the world.
All this came to one sharp moment as we bumped across town, having left behind the children who waited to lunge at us whenever we emerged from our hotel. Addis Ababa in the early 2000s still looked like the 1970s, with architecture seemingly stalled a few decades in the past. Aside from the larger office buildings and hotels downtown, few buildings had the formality we expect in the West. Over the last few days, we had come to learn, though, that those less tidy-looking buildings held the best food and the warmest people.
As we drove along, our guides said a few words to each other and stiffened a little. The buildings gave way to a sea of improvisations of corrugated metal and shipping pallets. We were passing through one of the shantytowns of Addis. From the side of the road, the normally indifferent attitudes of the pedestrians had given way to baleful stares tinged with resentment and aggression. The atmosphere in the truck became decidedly tense.
Then, with a wave of his hand and a few words, our driver brought us to howls of laughter. Nothing could prepare me for the deft, politically savvy humor in what was coming. In one joke, he showed the indomitable pride of a people unwilling to be looked down upon, much less colonized. Raising his hand from the wheel he swung it in a circle to indicate our dangerous surroundings in one of the poorest, most maligned countries on earth.
“This” he said of the shantytown, “We call Mexico.”