November 26, 2009

Are you tired of Africa? (Don't be)

I was explaining to the woman at the cell phone company yesterday that I needed to close my account because I was moving back to the United States.

"Why?" she asked. "Are you tired of Kenya?"

The lady at the bank, the man at the ISP -- all had asked whether I'd finally become sick of this place I've called home for more than four years. I always said no, of course not. When I arrived it was a lark, and I was a young journalist who wanted an adventure. I didn't imagine I'd love it, because I was too naive to realize that Kenya and Africa are like most places in the world -- they have their ways of charming newcomers who allow themselves to be charmed.

Yet the woman had a point. The fact is, I am a little tired, if not of Kenya then of a job that demands frequent travel in less-than-business-class conditions, and of the mental exercise of surveying news sites every day only to find a litany of negative developments in places where I've traveled and made friends, and grown to care about.

I am sorry to say that I find the continent in many ways a grimmer place than it was when I arrived in 2005. The crises in Sudan, Somalia and Congo haven't gotten any better, there are new troubles in places like Guinea, and the rigged elections in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe dashed hopes and cost too many lives. (I'll never get used to hearing someone say that so-and-so "died in the election.") The rich are getting richer, the poor more desperate, the climate more unpredictable and the population growing faster than any politician seems to reckon.

So it might seem an inopportune time for a journalist to pack up and leave. We will always need more reporters in Africa, not fewer. But foreign correspondents have shelf lives in their postings, and for me it's time for a new challenge, which I hope to find in Washington, D.C., where I start a new job with McClatchy next week.

In my final days in Kenya, I said farewell to three friends whose lives sum up what's plaguing Africa and the possibilities that still beckon this most beautiful, bewildering continent.

I had lunch with Bashiir, who runs a guesthouse in Mogadishu where I stayed in 2007 when I went to cover the aftermath of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. It was Bashiir who called me one terrible morning a few months later with the news that Mahad, our stringer in Mogadishu, had been assassinated on his way to work. Bashiir had remained in Somalia but come to Nairobi on business, and when we met by the entrance to one of the city's plush shopping malls, he was sporting Ray-Bans, cargo pants and a neatly trimmed goatee. We hugged warmly and he walked with his hand clasped on my back.

He's moved his guesthouse to a spot opposite the Mogadishu airport, out of the line of insurgent fire, where he doesn't fear mortars crashing into his guests as they sip his chef's cappuccinos (made with Nescafe, so they're better thought of as "Mogaccinos"). He's also branched out into security work, and has become a popular fixer for foreign journalists who dare enter Somalia, setting up trips across the country.

Over pizzas, he said he didn't think the violence would abate over the next year. He was going to Italy for a medical checkup; the stress was getting to him. He has enough friends in Kenya and abroad who'd be willing to offer him a job and a place to live. But he's devoted himself to his country, and to making sure journalists who want to come work there have a safe place to stay and fresh fish to dine on at night -- a taste of the good life that Somalia knew when Bashiir was a much younger man.


I said an emotional goodbye to Evans, the widower of the woman who came twice a week to clean my apartment for nearly four years, before she died earlier this year. Joyce had HIV, something she and Evans never told anyone, fearful of the stigma like so many Kenyans. When she became seriously ill in March, while I was away on a long reporting trip, her body was failing in so many ways that only one thing could be the cause. She continued to deny her status to me, until one day I told her to think about her children.

Shortly after she died we learned that both their boys, ages 8 and 4, were also HIV-positive. The news fell on Evans like a brick; Joyce's mother, Judy, nearly collapsed on the floor of my kitchen. The 4-year-old was sick enough that he needed to start on antiretrovirals immediately. Evans and Judy had a million questions, few of which I could answer, but Lea Toto, the wonderful, USAID-supported children's clinic where the boys are now patients sent people to the family home to talk with them privately.

When I saw them on Sunday, the boys looked bright and happy. The younger one has responded well to the drugs, developing a fierce appetite, and I struggled to lift him. The family is still worried about the future without Joyce around to support the kids. They still don't say "HIV" or "AIDS" aloud, so we talk in euphemisms like "status," "health," "situation." But slowly, they are telling close relatives. In their own way, they're confronting a disease that cost them one beloved family member but have decided need not cost another.


I was stunned by Moses's apartment. It was on the top floor of a new complex with a fleet of SUVs in the resident parking lot, most carrying UN or diplomatic license plates. His was a split-level, with balconies all around, and you could fit fully four of my apartments inside his. "The woman," he said, using that Maasai tic whereby men don't refer to their wives by name, "she loves me too much. She said, 'You are a very good man.'"

Moses, in fact, is one of the best. He grew up a villager several hours outside Nairobi, in Maasai country, but was a natural leader. Some friends from Slovenia started a safari company and hired him as a driver, and it wasn't long before Moses developed a clientele of his own. Last year he struck off on his own, and his company, Maasai Adventures, as he tells it, is the first independent tour company in the Masai Mara that's owned by a son of the soil. It should be an inspiration to a nation of young businessmen that they can run in an industry that's so far dominated by white Kenyans, Indians and foreigners.

The night of my going-away party, on Saturday, Moses brought his wife, Evelyn, and two friends. I gave him a painting to decorate the acres of walls in his place, nearly all of which were bare; he'd brought me a beaded watch strap I'd coveted when we'd visited his village. His obscure village days are over; the day I left, a documentary film crew from Canada was due in town to tape a one-hour special on him, part of a series on African lives before next year's World Cup.

"One hour?" I laughed. "That's a lot of Moses."

"I have many things to say," he said.


That brings me to the other question that everyone has asked: Is McClatchy replacing you? The answer is no, at least not right now. Media companies have to justify every scarce dollar they spend these days, and with the Obama administration waging two wars there's no question where we must put our resources for now.

So our Africa bureau is going dark. Other American newspapers, too, are closing bureaus on the continent or leaving postings unfilled. It is the unfortunate reality of the moment. But while nothing can quite replace independent, unbiased reporting by professional journalists, we must be honest that there's no shortage of news out of Africa. Just glance at the blogroll to the right, or head over to Twitter, where a vibrant community of Africans and foreigners are reporting and debating everything from economics to soccer results to ICC cases.

My final stories will be published in the coming weeks. But I'm hanging up the blog for now, with thanks to all of you for reading and commenting and creating a community I never thought possible. I'll continue to follow and occasiona lly write about African affairs from Washington, with fresh eyes focused on slightly different things. While I'm no longer "on the ground," I'm not out of the loop.

So don't be tired of Kenya, or of Africa; I'm certainly not.

November 12, 2009

'Obamarama': Barack Obama Road

After a hiatus, and in time for Friday, Obamarama is back, thanks to this image I fished out of my cell phone. I shot this in Mombasa back in April and forgot about it.


Yes, that's Barack Obama Road, printed in stencil.

Previous Obamarama images:
Cell phone, Kenya

Obama Restaurant and Cafe, Somalia

Bubble gum in Kisumu, Kenya
Kanga bag in Nairobi, Kenya
Hope Gift Shop in Kisumu, Kenya
Mini Market in Kigali, Rwanda
Video shop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Bar-cafe in Cotonou, Benin
Snacks Point in Ntulele, Kenya

November 10, 2009

Carryout chicken

You know you're in Africa when...

...after napping on a long road trip back from the bush, you reach your destination, look in the back of the truck and find your stuff has been joined by two huge sacks of charcoal and two live chickens.


This was from my trip through northern Mozambique last week with the good folks at World Vision. I dozed off on the long, flat road from Morrumbala to Quelimane, and was assured that the roadside poultry was better and cheaper than city chickens.

Here's a closer look at dinner:


November 09, 2009

Art deco Asmara

You can't go to Asmara and not note the architecture. While most African capitals today are replete with drab, hulking towers from the 1960s and 1970s, the Eritrean capital, dating back to its days as an early-century Italian colonial pied-a-terre, is home to some of the boldest designs on the continent.

Benito Mussolini saw Asmara as an extension of his Fascist empire. He used the highland city, as Barney Jopson wrote recently in the Financial Times, as "a laboratory for bold architectural styles – rationalism, futurism, monumentalism – that would never pass muster in Italy. The result is a cocktail of convex façades, jutting balconies and porthole windows."

UNESCO says the city of 400,000 "represents perhaps the most concentrated and intact assemblage of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world." "Intact" is a relative term, however. Most of the celebrated buildings are in dire need of a touch-up. Porthole windows are shattered or missing. The gently curved facades need repainting. The vibrant colors have faded down to that familiar drabness brought on by weather and neglect.

Yet the buildings still stop you in your tracks as you drive by, and it's cool to think of what the city looked like in its heyday. The Fiat Tagliero service station, with its iconic "wings," is probably the most famous of the lot:


Up close, the badly faded lettering still looks sharp.


The largest movie theater in colonial Asmara was the Impero, reportedly named for Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia. It dominates the main Harnet Avenue strip and is a modernist landmark, to be sure, but don't look too closely -- many of 45 round lights dotting the front are cracked.


The Irga building gets overlooked because it's next to the Tagliero. But it's another art deco standout, built in 1961, according to architecture types smarter than me.


Finally, strolling past the Cinema Roma (1937), with its marble facade, and watching as ancient vehicles motored down the street, I could almost imagine myself in an old Italian hill town.



November 04, 2009

Spy games

I'd been warned before going to Asmara that I might be spied upon. In the extremely small capital of an extremely secretive regime, diplomats told me they assumed they were being watched by their neighbors and probably even by some Eritreans who worked for them.

On my first night in the city I was at a bar with some other foreigners, among them teachers and members of the small diplomatic corps. We were the only non-Eritreans there, and not difficult to spot. A half-dozen of us were sitting around a small, low table, drinking the sometimes skunky but not altogether unpleasant Asmara Beer, when an Eritrean man walked in and pulled a chair up very close to the table. If I turned my head 90 degrees, I was right in his face.

The guy was young-looking and stylish, in a tweed jacket and black spectacles. The bar was dark, but he carried a paperback book. He sat down facing away from us, never once making eye contact. Instead he stared off into the middle distance, the book lying unopened next to him, for at least a half-hour. He puffed on a cigarette or two, but didn't order a drink, and left without saying a word.

To the foreigners I was with, there was no question this man had been sent to eavesdrop on our conversation. They'd had similar encounters many times before in Asmara. I hadn't yet been conditioned into that way of thinking. But I had to wonder: would a real spy be so obvious?

November 02, 2009

On the air in Eritrea


I've just returned from a brief trip to Asmara, Eritrea, where I had the chance to interview Isaias Afwerki, the country's only president in 16 years of independence.

The Ministry of Information gave me less than a week to prepare, and Isaias isn't an easy interview. He's famously prickly and doesn't seem to think much of journalists. As the story goes, he expelled a wire-service reporter from the country a few years back after the reporter repeatedly referred to Eritrea as "the tiny Red Sea state."

But for me the most difficult thing about the interview was that it was taped live by the presidential media service, with three cameras and an array of lights. Before Isaias walked into the room, while I was looking over my notes, one of the cameramen startled me by straightening my tie. When the interview began, I was given a countdown as if I were a seasoned TV personality.

When I got the wrap-up sign, nearly two and a half hours later, I briefly contemplated signing off with "You stay classy, Asmara." (Not really.)

The staged aspect threw me off, but it was stranger after the interview aired on EriTV, the country's only TV channel, and I started being recognized in my hotel, in the street, in the immigration line in Cairo after my flight out. In a deeply repressive and suspicious country, this would have been an excellent way for Isaias to ensure no one spoke to me -- except that few people wanted to speak with me, anyway.

I'd been told to watch out for Isaias's footwear, and sure enough he was wearing his trademark sandals. Although the 63-year-old ruler hasn't created a cult of personality there is, among his supporters, an almost cult-like appreciation for his lack of pretension, which measured against his African counterparts makes him seem positively ascetic. His photo doesn't hang in every store window, he hasn't constructed an over-the-top presidential palace, and when he travels through Asmara in the presidential car (a sensible sedan) he rides shotgun.

Later this week we'll be running my story as well as a short video I've produced with clips from the interview. Stay tuned.

October 19, 2009

21st century air travel

What happens when the Kenya Airways computers go down for several consecutive hours at Entebbe airport in Uganda?

You board your flight with this rather ridiculous-looking piece of paper:


October 14, 2009

Snapshots of Madagascar

Very few outsiders get to the poor island of Madagascar. Yet it's one of the most fascinating places on Earth, with plant and animal species found nowhere else. Fortunately, my friend Robyn Dixon of the LA Times is there on a reporting trip, and Tweeting about it.

Her updates -- a warm, closely observed series of snapshots from a forgotten corner of the world -- have been a highlight of my week. And they're better than 99.99% of the stuff you find on Twitter.

Take a look:


October 12, 2009

Wyclef's thought that counts

Nairobi put on a good show Saturday night at the annual MTV Africa Music Awards. There was more talent (Nigeria's D'Banj, Kenya's own Nameless), style (tight dresses, shiny sunglasses), celebrity (Akon, Wyclef Jean) than this city usually sees. I can't judge how it looked on TV but inside the hall it was a pretty great party.

WyclefAs the host, Wyclef brought his A-game, a pleasant surprise to those of us accustomed to big stars coming to Africa and putting on lackluster performances (I'm talking about you, Ja Rule, and you, Mos Def). Wyclef even went topical, at one point bringing a chef onstage to talk about Kenya's current food crisis.

What's the one thing Kenya needs to stave off a food disaster, the chef was asked. "Seeds," he responded, as the crowd cheered. Kenyans need help growing more of their own food, he went on. They don't want handouts.

Then Wyclef looked into the camera and made a plea to viewers -- to donate to the World Food Program. The massive U.N. agency that provides food handouts by the megaton to crisis zones, and is sometimes accused of distorting local agricultural markets and criticized for buying the bulk of its food from American farmers. The exact opposite, I think, of what the chef intended.

Wyclef is a smart guy, thoughtful, deeply committed to the plight of his troubled homeland of Haiti. He got this one wrong. Then again, I'm not sure how many people in that rocking, booze-soaked concert hall noticed.

October 08, 2009

Dark humor

I was walking out of a Nairobi movie theater last night. (Finally watched "Up." Enchanting.) An American friend saw this poster in the lobby and said: "Hey, a movie about the next Kenyan election!"

2012 movie poster 

I laughed. Our three Kenyan friends didn't.



Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at or send him a story idea.


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