Africa revisited through the Dark Star Safari

From the comfortable security of my modern cocoon in Seattle, Wash., I am vicariously reliving some long-ago travels I made in Africa during the summer of 1997, which already was 15 years ago. I have the often cynical but always observant and honest Paul Theroux to thank for being lifted out of my quotidian boredom and back to my brief five-week journey in central and East Africa.

Sunrise on the Serengeti, a magnificent sight indeed.

In June 1997, I travelled to Rwanda, just three years after the genocide. I arrived there, hoping to try my hand at freelance journalism and perhaps cover some of the genocide trials that were underway in the aftermath of the horrific crimes against humanity. I lacked two of the most critical elements to pull this off: connections and cash. Maybe I lacked cajones too. I also was floored by malaria once I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, and I pulled out in two weeks, having lost a lot of weight and having determined I would not have the resources to succeed in my original plan. As to whether I would have succeeded as a freelancer if I stayed longer is hard to say, as Rwanda then was in the throes of an incredibly violent civil war that had claimed thousands of lives. That conflict, which involved the stopping of microbuses—like ones I was riding—and the slaughtering of all passengers, was pitting the Tutsi-led forces of the new post-genocide government of Rwanda against the extremist Hutu militias who had taken hold in then eastern Zaire. This was just before Zaire’s own meltdown into violent civil war, tribal violence, and foreign interventions that remains unresolved to this day.

Passing the time in Moroti, Uganda, on my way to the north of the country in 1997.

Theroux’s book, called Dark Star Safari, is typical and classic Theroux. It recounts a year-long trip he made from Cairo to Capetown in the early 2000s, mostly by land transportation, using local means such as the back of trucks, buses, microbuses, and sometimes rides in Land Rovers and overland safari trucks with the many white Westerners he sees. Theroux is unforgiving in his criticism of both Africans and of outsiders, who are mostly Westerners but occasionally Indians, Japanese, and Chinese. Theroux often savagely skewers this mostly Western crowd as if they were the marabou scavengers, the quite ugly and ubiquitous large storks seen throughout eastern Africa, which lurk about and wait for carrion to devour.

I like Theroux because he attempts to put what he sees into context, with the perspective of a man who spent two years of young adulthood as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s and later several years as a lecturer in Kampala, Uganda, before the despot Idi Amin took over and destroyed that nation. To his credit, Theroux’s comments on the failures of aid projects, for instance, are based on his first-hand encounters. He credits foreign aid organizations and Western governments for creating a culture of aid dependency in many African nations. But his biggest target is corruption by African leaders and its military and civilian rulers. Writes Theroux of the large cities he visited and detested on his trip: “Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.“

Traveling by bus in Uganda, rarely a dull moment.

I have exchanged a few emails about this book with a friend of mine who also did a Peace Corps stint in Africa and who thought Theroux was honest about what he observed. I told my friend that Theroux’s description of traveling through a inhospitable, mostly lawless area from Mega, Ethiopia, to Isiolo, Kenya, where two white Westerners refused to give him a ride in their Land Rover, brought back my own memories. Like Theroux, I saw plenty of those same Land Rovers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda and also never got a lift. (Did I deserve one—no, but they could have been offered; I did refuse a ride once too because I wanted to walk, but the driver was African and a decent guy.) I too wondered who are these privileged outsiders anyway? I remember distinctly two haughty U.N. officials—an African and European—sniping like French lords at low-paid Rwandan hotel staff while wearing stylish dark shades and expensive suits, angry dust got on their suitcases, as they disembarked at Milles Colines Hotel, made famous during the genocide where Tutsis hid while surrounded by killers. The cost for a room in 1997 was about $150 a night as I recall, or about half of what a Rwandan then earned in a year. I could not afford the place and luckily found accommodation with a great aid worker I met who I thought was doing good work.

Like Theroux, I travelled by truck to some remote parts in the bush. This trip took about 12 hours and was among my most memorable.

I also remember Italian missionaries in Northern Uganda, near Karamojo, in the deep bush who ran a furniture shop and spoke the local language and seemed completely at ease and in their element — like some of the Italian missionaries Theroux met in Ethiopia and Kenya. And, like Theroux, I remember these “overlanders,” the white tourists on coverted safari trucks crossing Africa, when I stopped at Lake Naivasha, Kenya. In my case, the passengers expressed excitement about seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda without having a clue about the raging conflict there or another violent uprising that was occurring in southwest Uganda. And one has to wonder about two female aid workers he disparaged for their peddling of a Plumpy’nut type nutritional food product to poor children in person cause they reportedly didn’t trust the mothers to deliver the aid themselves? Is that true? I believe it is. Just this spring I heard an announcement by U.S. AID that the United States is pushing corporate food aid with corporate food giant Pepsico, in Ethiopia. What’s good for Pepsico is also good for U.S. AID and Ethiopians, if I am to believe the facts in this press release.

Anyway, not everyone agrees with Theroux, and here’s one attack, by John Ryle from 2002 in the Guardian, of the book and of the writer himself. Personally, I think Theroux is smart and clearly sees the public health, economic, political, and outsider-driven problems that challenge the countries he visited. I also do not think one sells books being nice or being 100 percent true. Theroux is a strong brand, and you know what you get when you read his brand. And it remains exceptionally enjoyable.

I shot this photo near Mt. Karamojong, a mountain that is home to a rebellious group who were known to rob locals with AK 47s when they were not fighting with other cattle raising tribes in Kenya. Or maybe they are just a tribe trying to survive in a land with few resources and many threats.

Being SMART about feel-good social media sensations

Like many people, I have very mixed feelings about the media phenomenon that is the super viral video known as Kony 2012. It has a sexy opening line: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea”–something that is a two-edged sword.  This can be terribly awful if applied by those promoting “evil agendas” (explained below). The video is produced by a group called Invisible Children, itself a major recipient of corporate giving (JP Chase Morgan Bank is a huge supporter of this group, according to the company’s web site). This itself gives one pause.

The moment I saw it, I was screaming out loud: “manipulative,” “scam,” “cliche,” “heroic white saviors,” “powerless Africans with only one name,” “exploitative.” I actually have followed this story for more than a decade, and I have been to northern Uganda in 1997, where the Lord’s Resistance Army wrought havoc on innocent Ugandans. This is a long, complex story involving several African nations, ethnic groups, geopolitics, and more. This video, while bringing a horrible human rights offender to the attention of the public, disregarded many historic realities that I found deeply troubling as a former journalist. For instance, the main villain, Joseph Kony, is no longer in Uganda committing crimes; he reportedly was last seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So what are we to do when we see how emotionally manipulative media products can gain one instant notoriety and fame, itself a goal of many scraping to make it in media production, photography, and storytelling.  (Recall “performance artist,” but definitely not a journalist, Mike Daisy and the factually inaccurate story he pushed about Apple’s suppliers in China that compromised his career and brought disgrace to the radio show This American Life.)

I can never disassociate the message from the person. Remember Leni Riefenstahl and her hypnotically seductive Triumph of the Will, a  scary masterpiece of fascist propaganda released in 1935 (when concentration camps were not quite operationalized) that helped the cause of one of the greatest murdering madmen of human history, Adolf Hitler? Riefenstahl latter downplayed her Nazi sympathies and attempted to justify her work as merely the output of an artist doing a job, without moral consideration for the outcome. And she was a brilliant photographer and filmmaker, who even after being associated with a genocidal regime, revitalized her career with images of Sudan (The Last of the Nuba) that many would think of today as “progressive” in its orientation. (See the stunning photo below.)

Leni Riefenstahl’s photos of the Nuba, seen here, are brilliant images in their own right, but should they be viewed as distinct from her ties to a genocidal regime from her more youthful days?

I just stumbled on a promotional page for a group called International League of Conservation Photographers. I immediately smelled the conflict between huge egos involved in their media/photographic work and their worthwhile “cause.” The video creates an image of heroic warriors, backed by their own orchestral score. Or, are they just talented photographers trying to make a living too as photographers. What do you all think?

I am always going to suspect self-promotion if I do not see a clearly defined goal that accompanies the promotion. This organization states what many would believe to be a worthy goal: “The ILCP seeks to empower conservation photographers by creating an organizational structure that allows them to focus on the creative aspects of their work while at the same time finding venues that allow their images to make a significant contribution to the understanding and caring of the environment.” But is this truly a clear roadmap?

In public health, they teach us that the best interventions have SMART objectives because they provide the clearest guidelines for developing measurable, achievable actions. SMART stands for:
-Specific
-Measurable
-Attainable
-Relevant
-Time Bound

Whether SMART objectives actually lead to change, or themselves become watered down by their clever wording, is another topic. But in general, I believe this is a relevant way for looking at groups who promote social change. Is what they are offering SMART, or is something more akin to Triumph of the Will, dressed in clever social media marketing. That really is the job of the viewer, but also those who can also use social media to call attention to Triumph of the Will’s and Kony 2012’s viral step-children.