Friday, July 10, 2009

5 sweeping generalizations about Africa

The tourist-ness of the Nile made me think about what is Africa really like? When I say this I guess I actually mean Uganda- or at most East Africa. I wouldn't exactly say I've seen Europe or European culture after my two weeks in Italy, right? I don't want to be one of those people who generalize about a continent based on a few weeks in one town. "Well the thing about North America (Cleveland) is its really hot (in August)." Anyway, philosofizing about Africa just sounds cooler than about Uganda, so what is Africa like for me really? I'm not going to talk about The Poverty for two reasons. 1: it's depressing and I'm tired of writing about stuff that makes me sad. And more importantly 2: if you visited Washington DC you wouldn't really say the homeless people and crime are the characteristic features. It's marginalizing and unfair to do that, and bottom line I wouldn't like it if someone did that about my home.

5 sweeping generalizations I will always associate with Africa:

First and foremost for me living in Africa is about bikes. Bikes are everywhere, they are definitely the primary mode of transportation after the "foot-subishi." Bike taxis carrying people, even two passengers at once. Bike delivery trucks carrying crates, stacked 3 feet high with beer and soda. Bike tow trucks carrying other bikes. Bikes carrying our fully assembled wooden beds. A bike carrying 800 square feet of bamboo that became our fence. Bikes bikes bikes.


Next would be crowds. Everywhere I go there's between 10 and 50 people just hanging out observing the scene. Should anything remotely interesting happen a massive crowd forms. Truck stuck in the mud? Take the phone off the hook, and strap the baby on your back because you don't want to miss this. Electronics store with a TV on inside? Might as well cross the street, because that sidewalk is closed. The flip side is that no matter where I go, there's someone in the crowd who speaks enough English to give us directions or a hand in whatever we're trying to accomplish. Which brings me to the third thing.

The people. The warmth and friendliness of strangers here is amazing. If I need some help with something, I just ask the first person I see. The majority of the time he'll drop what he's doing and give me a hand and won't ask for anything in return. We are welcomed into people's homes and shops like we're long lost cousins. In all seriousness, every time we are just so fed up with nothing working, power outages and the food, some random stranger makes our day with their kindness. Hand in hand with this is the personal space. Men holding hands with men is normal expected, handshakes can last for minutes. Hanging out with buddies, there is constant contact- arms around shoulders, chucks on the arm, high fives, holding hands. Normal conversation protocol involves casually tracing little circles on the chest or arm of your counterpart with a fingertip. You really feel less like an individual with your own schedule and program, and more just a person among people- which I know makes no sense.

And I guess I couldn't talk about this and not mention the paradox of the waiter. Every random person is so friendly and happily bends over backwards to help you. Everyone that is, except the people who are paid to serve you. You go to a restaurant and the waiter finally comes to take your order- after spending the requisite time ignoring you because they're watching Nigerian soap operas- but only after you have thoroughly debated whether it's worth it to just go somewhere else. Then you get the look that says "you should have just left, can't you see I'm in the middle of something? I'll get your food, but you and I both know I'm not exactly going to bust my ass." Eventually your food will come, but after no less than 40 minutes for eggs and bread. If your order is 70% right, that's a solid gentleman's C. If your starters come before your entree, it's an event you refer back to. "Remember the time when... Let's go back to that place." I just don't get it. Well maybe I do, tipping isn't really expected- except if you're white and even then it's just a coin. "Wow, you brought mostly what I asked for, in almost less time it would have taken for me to do it myself. Have a quarter my friend."

Last I'll say the smells. People always talk about how smell is no longer a part of American life, I guess I get it now. Everything here has a smell, and smells like what it's supposed to smell like. It's hard to describe adequately. The butcher shop smells like blood. The milk stall smells like milk. The sewer smells like shit. A hot, packed taxi smells like people. The market smells like fish and overripe vegetables, like formerly living things marching back towards dirt. We all know all these smells, but everything is magnified. Like realler than real.

And I guess I'll do a bonus, because on a good day there's always a bonus. Bonus airtime, bonus beer, bonus game of pool. Bonus is the roads. Not the roads so much, as the way they are used. At home if you asked me what are roads for, I'd answer without hesitation: "roads are for cars." If you are stubborn enough to ride your bike in the street in America, cars are practically obligated to run you down. Here, not so much. Roads are for those who need to get somewhere. Bikes have a right to the road, as they outnumber cars ten to one. Pedestrians have a right to the road, as sidewalks are absent as often as they're there. Goats have a right to the road, as they make their living eating the tasty morsels on the roadside. Cows really have a right to the road, as no one can really tell them otherwise. Everyone shares the road, with their own place in the hierarchy of who gets out of who's way. At the bottom is chickens, because they're dumb and, well, they're just chickens after all. Pedestrians and goats come next because they are quick and smart enough to get out of the way. Next, bikes because they are kind of clumsy and more importantly because they are in motion with a clear destination unlike the previous. Then cars, certainly near the top. Trucks and buses come next because they will barrel through anything totally unfazed. As far as I can tell, cows are king though. Cows amble across the road as they please and everyone just stops and waits. Everyone else gets a little courtesy "I'm here, get outta my way" honk. Not the cows, they just take their time enjoying the weather. The cows don't take nothing from nobody, you got a problem speak into the microphones. They're the two sharp, spear shaped things attached to my forehead.

[road pic]

That's it, Africa. First one out was bugs.

1 comment:

  1. beautifully written, I am from India and I feel life is not so different there from here. Even here cows rule the world...sorry roads.

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