Black-White Supremacy in a Nairobi Mall
Jun18

Black-White Supremacy in a Nairobi Mall

“I can’t fucking stand these people. Can you?” “Excuse me?” I reply meekly. “Black people. I cannot stand black people.” Last weekend, in achingly hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I attended a dinner party in a warmly lit second floor loft. Other attendees were primarily NYU film students, one out-of-town friend from somewhere in Connecticut, and the host’s — Anne’s — cousins in from Italy. On the balcony, amidst rich Italian pasta and the faint beat of bass from the Brooklyn streets below, Anne asks me an interesting question about my recently completed two-year trip around the world: “What was your most positive first interaction with a total stranger?” “I’m not so sure!” I reply. “No one has ever asked me that before. I’d love some time to contemplate. However, while I can’t recount my most positive first interaction with a stranger, I can definitely recount my most memorable.” More than two years ago, I sat exhausted in a cafe booth of a bustling Nairobi mall. I’d just arrived from a night bus from Jinja, Uganda, and my body craved something that would sit in my stomach like a ten-ton rock. The bus was meant to leave around 4pm the previous day, but unfortunately, never showed. Instead, I opted for the 11pm, and given that the road was more pot-holed than not, and nighttime travel is never a strong idea in East Africa (bandits, more bandits, etc.), I didn’t get much sleep. I’m exhausted, unshowered and delirious — a strong contrast to the suited, well-groomed, fifty-plus-year-old gentleman reading the newspaper at the adjacent table. As I wait, he gives his order to the nearby waitress, inexplicably yet visibly losing patience with every passing moment. When the waitress leaves, he turns his attention to me. “I can’t f*cking stand these people. Can you?” “Excuse me?” I reply meekly. “Black people. I cannot stand black people.” I can’t believe my ears. To add to this hurricane of assholery, this man — sharply dressed with the facade of importance — was black himself. “Firstly — no. I have no problem with black people. Secondly — I am, perhaps cynically, confused. Aren’t you black, yourself?” “I am,” he replied. “But I didn’t choose to be black.” “Excuse me?” I retort, now on razor edge and becoming combative. “That’s right — I didn’t choose to be black. My father is Kenyan, and my mother is white and Dutch. I can’t stand black people. The waitress had far too much trouble with my order. They never do anything right.” In ways, I felt sorry for the man. In others, I wanted this vomitorium of ignorance and disgrace to...

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Witness The Unseen Africa with Francis Tapon
May24

Witness The Unseen Africa with Francis Tapon

Africa: often considered to be one of the least explored, dangerous, truly wild continents on Earth, and yet so romanticised. Why is this the case? Is it that, despite the constant stream of images of turmoil, corruption, crime, and general catastrophe we see on the news, there are still echoes of laughter and love amongst the people, or elephants and lions roaming free along the plains? Is it that we don’t actually get to see a sizeable chunk of Africa’s countries due to inherent danger and inaccessibility? Or is it a combination of both things? Francis Tapon, author of two books and an avid traveller, wants to set the record straight. His upcoming series, The Unseen Africa, aims to expose all elements of this great continent – not just the most dramatic, romantic, or newsworthy. “The premise [of the show] is that we’re constantly seeing the same tired, old images of Africa,” he says. “They always fall into one of two categories: the good – safaris and wildlife, tribal dancing, pyramids etc., and the bad – war, famine, disease, and chaos. Furthermore, the media usually covers the same countries, like Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, and South Africa. “What I hope viewers will get out of The Unseen Africa is the other 90 per cent – the part that isn’t at war or suffering; the part where people live normal, healthy, happy lives; the part that lives in countries we never get to see or hear about, such as Comoros, Benin, or Guinea Bissau. And when I go to a well-known country, like Morocco, I go to parts that few others do. “By the end, viewers will have a more accurate image of Africa.” The show is based on a four-year journey across all 54 African countries, and scaling the highest mountain in each – an ambitious feat. But Francis is no stranger to travel to epic proportions: he’s walked across America four times, hiked the Continental Divide Trail (and back again!), and spent three years exploring the back roads of 25 Eastern European countries. His books, The Hidden Europe and Hike Your Own Hike, chronicle his adventures. “I adore travelling, exploring, and hiking,” he says. “I prefer sinking my teeth into countries instead of blazing through them in a few days. It’s much easier to understand Ghana if you spend a month there versus one week. “I’m trying to achieve depth and breadth with The Unseen Africa – it’s that kind of profound travel that gave me the material to write my books.” (It’s worth noting The Hidden Europe is 750 pages long). Francis, a collector of over 1000 hitchhikers,...

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A Journey to the Island in the Sky
Apr17

A Journey to the Island in the Sky

The young boy sat on his knees, looking at me while casually chewing on one end of a boiled rat. He ate the stomach while the face, mouth, and claws pointed the other way. His toddler brother sat next to him, eating the other end of the rat with the thick tail hanging down to his elbow. They both absent-mindedly munched away while staring intensely at me. Their mother, who was missing an eye, sat next to them, while slowly stirring the ntsima in a big, black pot. Their aged father, the warden, was smoking beside the fire, and my guide, John, closed the circle. We were halfway up Mount Mulanje in Malawi on a two-day hike. The hut was a simple house on a plateau used for overnight campers. We were surrounded by dense, lush bush. The warden spoke no English, but every now and then broke into a lovely, cackling laugh that made me wish I could understand what was being said. I slowly pecked at my lunch of tiny, bony fish and ntsima while trying to ignore the invasive glares of the rodent-gnawing youngsters opposite me, and reflected how my two-week holiday had taken an unexpected turn. My journey started ten days before in Nhkata Bay on Lake Malawi. Known as the ‘Lake of Stars’ because of the lights of the fishing boats, it is the third-largest lake in Africa. With one thousand different fish species, hippos, crocodiles, and fish eagles calling the lake home, the nature alone is a wonderful attraction — but the cheer of the Malawian people proves to be the real delight. Malawians are undeniably upbeat. Everywhere one goes, on the lake or in the streets, it seems everyone is eager to chat and interact. This omnipotent joy is contagious, and makes it that much easier to savour the splendour of the lake. The small, ramshackle, dusty street village of Nkhata Bay is an enchanting enclave with a fantastic, carefree feel. As one local so gladly put it, “Every day is Christmas here”. It is the kind of place where one dreams of starting one’s own backpackers’ lodge one day. In the idyllic setting of Monkey Bay, I lazed in hammocks, went on afternoon walks into the town, and ate avocados the size of melons. My third stop was the popular Cape Maclear, where I went on boat tours to the islands and quickly developed a snorkeling obsession. It was there I heard stories of the beauty of Mount Mulanje, known as the ‘Island in the Sky’. The next day, I was on my way there in a banana-packed minibus. It was...

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Karma-Chomped by the Guinean Dog
Apr14

Karma-Chomped by the Guinean Dog

An hour of Internet should mean an hour of Internet. It shouldn’t mean purchasing a one-hour ticket, using the Internet for ten minutes before it dies, coming back an hour later, using it for twelve more minutes before the electricity dies, coming back two hours later to find the electricity still isn’t back, then resigning to frustration and the call of evening prayer as your sign to try again tomorrow. Unfortunately, in much of the world, this is how things go. I’d been in Kankan, Guinea for roughly two months, teaching Spanish to university students and a science to 7th graders. In my free time, I’d amble through the countryside on a decrepit Chinese bicycle to see what I could find. In addition, in requisite preparation for my upcoming Turkey to Kyrgyzstan cycle tour, I spent a lot of time on the Internet as well. One Monday evening, after a cheerful day at school — save one student chucking a piece of gum at my forehead — I arrive at the Internet café nearest to my home. Today I’ll order pedals: Shimano M530. In high spirits and near-full patience, I march towards the desk and collect my log-in code — a shiny white ticket to a 60-minute joyride on the dusty, rattrap computer. Upbeat, I log in. Success! I open eBay, review my order, and enter my credit card details. After a mere ten minutes, the cyber devil rears its ugly head. Death goes the Internet! I should have seen this coming. I decide not to wait. I rise from my chair and walk towards the café attendant. He’ll be asking me to pay the full freight — 6,000 Guinean Francs for 60 minutes of use — and will suggest in genuine empathy that I come back later and try again. Not today. After weeks of submission, today is the day I fight. I want to win, if only this once. “Sir. The Internet worked for ten minutes. I don’t want to return later. I’ll pay you for ten minutes and we’ll part ways amicably. Sound OK?” It wasn’t. An argument ensues. The attendant becomes angry. Am I really being so unfair? I leave 1,000 Francs on the faux-wood table, mount my Chinese bicycle, and take off en route to my host father’s — Mr. Konaté’s — home. I cross the street and begin riding on an adjacent dirt path. The path is angled slightly, such that a ball would roll down it into the parallel drainage ditch. A cement driveway of an upscale home juts out perpendicularly, elevated slightly from the road, and I’m not moving fast enough to...

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The Business of Bribery in Ghana
Apr11

The Business of Bribery in Ghana

I peer around the corner into the secluded bar, looking for the man wearing olive-green pants and a teal shirt — typical of an immigration officer. This isn’t our first rendezvous. I’m looking for a gentleman who calls himself Otumfuo, the name of the mythical Asante King who rules the most powerful tribe in Ghana. His real identity is a mystery. During our frequent meetings, he always wears his official name badge tucked into his button-down shirt, with the yellow sash draped over the gun at his side. Scanning the sparse clientele, I find him seated underneath the shade of a palm tree, drinking bottled water and laughing loudly with another officer. I approach nervously, sitting to his left, trying not to visibly bite my lip. Because this is Ghana and no one is ever in a hurry and nothing is ever straightforward, we spend the next few minutes avoiding the real reason I’m here. He makes jokes about American politics and asks me if I’ve found a Ghanian boyfriend to meet my womanly needs. I plaster on a fake smile and play the part of the coquettish white girl. “Not yet,” I reply. What we’re doing is illegal and unethical and I hate it. “A few minutes more, a few more minutes,” I tell myself, trying desperately to disguise my disgust. Soon enough, I’m handing over my passport, holding my breath and waiting to hear the price I’ll have to pay for an extended stay. This isn’t my first, or last encounter with bribery in Ghana. At first, I’m grateful for this system that operates on performing “favors” in exchange for what amounts to a few dollars. I use it to my advantage when I initially arrive at the airport, bribing my way into the country by nonchalantly slipping a crisp 20-euro bill into the palm of the woman in charge of checking the required vaccination records. When I realize just how easy it is, I feel pretty smug. I start to think I have a handle on it, and wonder why countries like the U.S. and most of Europe are so uptight, anyway? Clearly bribery is effective and awesome. Except I’m beginning to grow constantly wary of where it begins and where it ends. The longer I stay in Ghana, the more I realize I actually have no idea what I’m doing. Is there some secret code? A flinch of the left cheek muscle I should notice but don’t, because I’m an outsider? Do I need to “tip” the person behind the counter telling me there’s no more fresh pineapple for my Hawaiian pizza, when I can see...

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