A Cringeworthy Letter from an Idiot Who Wants to Save Africa
Sometimes you get an email that is so good you know people are going to struggle to believe it is true. Last year, while looking into Asian media companies and their plans to expand in Ethiopia (it was a thrill-a-minute story, trust me), I got in touch with a young American who was in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. He was out there trying to sell advertising space to Ethiopian businesses for a number of Chinese companies.
Looking for a little insight into the dry mechanics of this, I emailed him asking for some information. I was expecting some spreadsheets, maybe a few overheads. What came back was a diary entry. An outpouring of emotion that was ridiculous but also kind of typical of what a lot of people, some of them professional journalists, think about Africa. I sent it to some writers and other professional folk working in Africa to ask for their informed opinion. Some of them didn’t get it or were too po-faced to comment (illuminating in itself). But some of them did. So here’s the diary entry, which we’ve corrected for basic spelling and grammar and made anonymous to spare the poor dude’s blushes, followed by some comments.
So I'm in Africa. First full day down and out. It's a real culture shock being here. I'm literally a walking attraction. It's strange. Strange how people view other people as exotic and foreign. I'm the outsider looking in. I'm the unwanted stain on the shirt you love but never knew existed. (Don't really know what that's supposed to mean but yeah, Africa!) I made it. I totally did it. Now what?
My life is a freestyle. Today I got a tour of the African Union. The fucking African Union, I didn't even know that existed until today. It was surreal my entire African experience has been a daydream. I'm not sure when I fell asleep but I'm not planning on waking up any time soon.
So we have a meeting with the prime minister tomorrow, Meles Zenawi. I'm super fucking pumped, I really like Africa/Ethiopia so far. It's amazing and I'm having fun. I'm getting cultured and I'm seeing the world. Let me tell you a little about my world and karma. Yesterday I take out cash and don't realize that I left my card in the ATM, in an Ethiopian shopping center, till this morning. I go back to the bank only to find someone, some beautifully kind Ethiopian, has returned my card. The karma is a factor because before I left Belgium I found a card at the ATM and slid it under the bank's door (because it was closed for the weekend). BAM! WOW!
And that's what happens when you don't fuck a stranger in the ass! Good story, huh? What else, Ethiopians are extremely nice. So far, so good. Oh, and my internet connection is shit.
I'm in Africa. Alone. By myself in a hotel room. Overlooking the city. Waiting to take over the world. I just watched 127 Hours and it reminds me, we (as human beings) are capable of anything. Extraordinary things. Unimaginable things. Fuck what we know. There's more to life than just gossip. Than just words. There's more to life than just the routine. And I'm on a journey to find these things. To live these things. To cherish these things. I will have my adventure. I will find my dream girl. I will feel the love. I will be the man I've always planned to be. I will not stop. I will live. I will die. I will be happy. I will be sad. I will be young. I will grow old. I will experience life and all its secrets. I will not settle. I am the motherfucking man. This world is beautiful and the people within it are amazing.
Their stories deserve to be heard. Their lives have become a part of mine. I am no longer scared of the unknown. I am the light when you are afraid of the dark. I have changed since leaving my home. I have grown. I am stronger. I am smarter. I am more open. I am hungrier. I want more. Ethiopia is my project, I will make it successful. I will help this country. I will build my destiny. No more games. No more doubts. This is what I want. A challenge. An opportunity to prove myself. An opportunity to make myself. 'This is it, don't get scared now.'
"Open your heart to the world and it will let you into its soul."
Right. Let's show this puddle of heart pourings to our panel.
COMMENTER #1 - Andrew Weir, Africa journalist and broadcaster
The rapture of the feckless, poorly educated foreigner in Africa when he confronts his ignorance is splendid to behold but as rarely observed as the nesting places of the Saharan sea eagle. It is only thanks to an arresting honesty that we are vouchsafed such a vivid picture of illiteracy, insensitivity, and arrogance, nuanced by an air of spellbound stupidity. He makes Bill and Ted look like Fellows of All Souls.
COMMENTER #2 - Dipo Salimonu, Director, Eirenicon Africa
Africans are, in my judgment, overly concerned about how we’re viewed and what is said about us. No sooner than a V.S. Naipaul or James Watson says something about Africa or Africans, we dissolve into conniptions and ask for their heads, tongues, or balls. We forget that any one man can say what he wants about anything, including Africa and Africans, and, in being wrong, deserves only either silence or further engagement. The irony is that our responses have a "thou protest too much" quality and belie the possibility that the authors of offensive statements are wrong. My main question is: How did this guy get a meeting with Zenawi the day after he arrives in the country? I need to know who his travel agent is... A greater point is that maybe Africans have become so used to reading about their histories and lives in the work of outsiders that they mistake even personal thoughts or observations for history and authoritative commentary. Maybe, but what do I know? I no more care about what this American says about Addis, Ethiopia, or Africa than if a drunken man came up to me on the street and said he was the King of Portmanteau. "Be kind to your subjects, King," is what I would say. "And have the best day you can. Peace."
COMMENTER #3 - Elliot Ross, Africa Is a Country
Was this written by Jeffrey Gettleman? If the writer could submerge the first person pronoun within his prose even a little he might soon find himself in line for the Pulitzer Prize in Foreign Reporting, writing as he is from such a "neglected" but increasingly "strategic" part of the world. It's not that we don't love the egomania—in fact, it's precisely what we in America want from those who write to us from East Africa—but it's considered polite to put on a hypocritical show that one isn't only writing about oneself.
COMMENTER #4 - Sean Jacobs, author and academic
Reads like an Eat, Pray, Love-Tucker Max-Jeffrey Sachs soup.
COMMENTER #5 - Gemma Ware, The Africa Report
It worries me that the man who wrote this diary entry was allowed into a room with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. You’d have thought, for a leader whose rebels brought down Mengistu’s Derg, that Meles would have chosen better minders. This guy should have flicked channels onto Ethiopian state TV, where he might have seen Irish pop star Bob Geldof, who is incredibly still considered a go-to political and economic pundit nearly 30 years after Live Aid. He might have realized that there are enough people hanging around who have made Ethiopia their project. Ethiopia doesn’t need them. The country is a bustling building site of universities, hotels, roads, and airports. Meles’ government—for all the question marks over its autocratic style of rule—is making massive investments in power supply and infrastructure that his Obama administration back home, presiding over a crumbling country starved of infrastructure investment, hasn't been able to. This guy should get scared now. About how little he knows about Africa.
So there you go, anonymous, wide-eyed American idiot. Your words and thoughts have been analyzed by professionals whose job it is to think about Africa's well-being constantly. Or maybe these people are mere small fries for a man who entertains leading African statesmen on the regs, I dunno.
Keep in touch!
Follow Oscar on Twitter @oscarrickettnow