DESPAIR AND DELIGHT IN EAST AFRICA

Arriving in a new place in the middle of the night is always disconcerting for me: I find it hard to get my bearings — like being in a disquieting dream where the landscape is meticulously drawn, and yet unfamiliar…and I have to get someplace…

I touched down in Entebbe at 1:20 AM. The sky was starless, and very, very dark. There is one two-lane highway that connects Entebbe with Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Sitting next to my driver in the front seat of his SUV, I could see he was pushing 120 kilometers an hour. The posted speed limit was 80. I nervously asked him if it was safe to drive so fast, and he replied, “Everyone drives fast at night…see — there is no traffic…during the day it is bumper to bumper.” Two minutes later, he and I were hyperventilating on the side of the road, having been forced onto the shoulder by an oncoming vehicle speeding directly at us in our lane. “Crazy drunk,” my driver muttered, when he could get his voice back. But this brush with death did not slow him down, and I feared that my African adventure might end before it began. Uganda has the second highest rate of road accidents in the world (after Ethiopia).

The two cities, Entebbe and Kampala, have merged into one. The huge growth of population in Uganda (78% are under 30) was obvious even at this hour of the night, as I could glimpse shadowy figures everywhere — along the road, moving in and out of one-story ramshackle cafes and houses. Dim lights emanated from these buildings, and the only bright lights shone from a huge edifice on top of a hill — President Museveni’s Entebbe palace. Although Kampala is the actual capital, he likes the accommodation here. Arriving at the five-star Serena Hotel in Kampala, I felt quite like him. Built on a hill overlooking the city, the Serena is a splendid terra cotta colored building — its African design and lush gardens dramatically lit. I loved my bed.

JAMBO, FRIENDS, ROMANS AND UGANDANS

My first activity the next morning was digging into the strategy of leadership as manifest in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I was attending a session of Mercy Corps’ global leadership conference. Mercy Corps, which delivers humanitarian relief and civil society programs in 47 of the most distressed countries on earth, brings together its management teams from all over the world every other year. (Some of you may remember two years ago I was in Abu Dhabi.) Lucky me, I get to sit in with these remarkable selfless people because Allen, my husband, is chair of the board.

For the previous five days, Allen had been visiting Mercy Corps programs in the hinterlands of Kenya. At a school for girls accessed from the nearest town by a four-hour drive down a rutted road, Allen was made an honorary elder: this after the children realized he was not a dead black man come back as a ghost. Mercy Corps has been working with these young girls to give them a sense of self-worth (literacy for girls in this outback is 1.4%), and help them survive the terrible traditions into which they have been born. For years, polygamy had been illegal in Kenya, but in 2014 polygamy was reinstated into law. Hence, girls, as young as 12, are given in marriage to the old men who can afford their bride price (10 goats?) and are often abused and used by their husbands and senior wives. Mercy Corps’ work seems Sisyphean but working with partners like the enlightened governor of this province, the stone is slowly moving up the hill.

So here I was sitting in a state-of-the-art conference center originally built by the tyrant Idi Amin. That night the space would be used for a debate among presidential candidates: Eight were running against Museveni, who as it turns out would not deign to attend. Why should he bother? He has been president since 1986 (more about him later). And so in this historic place, we were led in a discussion of leadership by an English acting troupe headed by the grandson of Laurence Olivier, explicating the roles of Cassius, Brutus, Mark Antony and Caesar, himself. The previous day they had been working from Henry V. I looked around the room at brown, black and white faces all entranced by this ageless story, wondering where I was, trying to make connections. And connections, as always, were more personal than cosmic — old friends and colleagues coming together from Mali, Colombia, Kyrgyzstan…

BEST LAID PLANS

Conference over. Bleary-eyed, we waited in the Serena lobby for our 5:30 AM pick-up for our flight south to Kisoro and then a two-hour drive to the impenetrable forest to visit with gorillas! But, no one came. At that hour I was tempted to fall back into my lovely bed and continue being cosseted by the solicitous Serena staff. But adventure beckoned. After many phone calls we discovered that our flight had been postponed for three hours; ironically, the name of the airline was Precision Air. “Just wait in the airport restaurant and we will find you.” Hakuna Matata (no worries)! After hours in the airport due to thunderstorms as well as the postponement, we were gathered up to fly. The big surprise was that our pilot was a black woman. In a country where young people have so little chance of getting good jobs, even when educated, there are exceptions. Flying over the Ugandan countryside, I was stunned to see houses everywhere…I had expected big empty spaces. You can see an annual population growth rate of 3.4% even from the air.

We landed on an airstrip that crossed the main street of Kisoro; crowds stood behind railroad barriers to watch us land, and then went on with their Sunday lives. Our next mode of transport was a huge Toyota, which appeared to be reinforced in military style for the worst road conditions. We felt secure in our armored car and excited to be close to our destination. But just outside of town, only a half hour into our drive, a tractor-trailer blocked the road. With big sighs, we swallowed our frustration, reminded ourselves that travel always includes travail and settled in to watch and wait. As it was Sunday, it seemed everyone else was out watching too — the roadblock was of major interest. We were of interest as well; young boys surrounded our car, some smiley, some not so smiley. They practiced their limited English on us, and said lots more that did not sound so polite, reaching their skinny arms into the car to touch us. Most of the boys and men were dressed scruffily, in well worn t-shirts and shorts, and those not barefoot wore rubber shoes or flip-flops (the kind made from old tires). Occasionally an older man would be dressed for church in an ancient black jacket and tie. The women, however, were dressed in their Sunday finest — colorful, multi-print dresses and headscarves, with their bibles clutched to their sides; with their babies on their hips or in slings over their backs — many, many babies.

The two-hour ride started up again after an hour. Hakuna Matata!! We jounced along the muddy, pot-holed road w-a-a-ay up into the mountains and were surrounded by people everywhere. Their fields were mostly planted with white potatoes, the main crop of this area; the angle of the tilled land was 30–45 degrees; and the world was lushly green. Deforested. But to judge by the meager homesteads and threadbare clothing, these Ugandans were barely scraping by. Young boys carried yellow jerry cans to nearby springs to fill with water: the jerry cans were covered with dirt and grime. And yet they survive, and more and more children survive (average of 6 per family). Farmers trudged up the road carrying their tools — scythes and machetes. One farmer, without a free hand, talked into a cell phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder. This is what “back to the future” must mean.

We were grateful to finally arrive at Clouds Mountain Lodge, down a short driveway but a world away from its sad, sad town. Greeted by Doreen, a Ugandan, and Christian, her Austrian husband, we collapsed into the cushy sofas of the great room and relaxed with a welcoming hand massage.

MY GORILLAS AND OTHER FAMILY (with apologies to Gerald Durrell)

Clouds, well named, because we could not see through the mist, offers a view of the volcanic mountains of three countries on sunny days: Uganda, Rwanda and Congo. It is in the forests on these mountainsides that the gorillas live. In order to visit them in Uganda you have to pay $600 a day per person for a permit and wherever you stay, a portion of your hotel cost is given to the community — at Clouds, $40 per bed per night. The idea here is that to preserve the gorillas in their natural habitat and discourage poaching, the community — the wider family — must benefit from the tourism the gorillas bring in.

Everyone I know who has visited the gorillas talks of how moving the experience was. In truth for me, the community and the hike into the forest were just as moving as the gorillas themselves. We were encouraged to hire porters to carry our knapsacks — a minimum fee also supports the community. Mary, assigned to me, could only see out of one eye, her other clouded with a milky substance, but she was a robust hiker, strong and kind when I needed her. I had been sure I would have no need of a porter, but the hike through the farmland down to the forest was steep and very slippery. As I thought of how hard it was to till land at this pitch, no less walk, I overcame my pride and finally reached out for Mary’s firm grip. We descended 1,500 feet in a mile and a half before approaching the forest.

Interestingly, the last few acres of cultivated land were planted with tea, because gorillas do not like it, and it keeps them from foraging in the fields.

From then on, no backpacks, no food. We left it all with our porters. Only our guides and armed guards (for protection in case we ran into a renegade unhabituated gorilla) came with us…and although the forest was not completely impenetrable, the grasses and trees were thick and slick. Our head guide led with a machete to make us a path. At some places, we pulled ourselves up on all fours. We brushed stinging red ants off our clothes and shoes, and got very mucky and wet. We climbed, slid and climbed for an intense half hour.

And then — there they were! A huge silverback, two females, two babies and a bunch of ‘tweens. We stood in silence not three feet away from them, and they completely ignored us. We watched them eat. We watched them groom. We watched and listened…speculating. When a baby jumped off his mother’s back and stood at the edge of their little clearing to greet another female and baby coming along, I almost felt as if the mother said, “Go on son — show them you can stand up.” On the other hand, she could have been saying, “Get back here!” Their hand motions and childcare seemed the most familiar — the most human. But our interaction with the gorillas was nil, except to backpedal out of their way when they moved into our space. And yet, our allotted hour with them passed by in flash. We wished for more, for some recognition of our mutual genes (we share 96% of the same DNA), but we had to leave, unacknowledged.

It takes two years for gorillas to become habituated to humans…two years of “meeting them,” and then getting closer and closer each day, but never interfering with their daily routine. Gorilla tourism is the future for the people of the villages surrounding the forest, yet there is little to show for it so far.

Two dilapidated souvenir stalls stand across from the wildlife office…of course we bought little carved gorillas from the women who smiled at us through their rotted teeth and furrowed skin. The state school, which sits in the middle of the town is crumbling; its windows all broken. The goal of the people who work at the hotel — all from the town — is to make enough money to send their children to private schools: there are two in town, the best of which is at the orphanage for children whose parents have died of AIDS. We got most of our information from Felix, our “butler.” He took us on a walk around his town…showing us the schools, the football pitch, the army base (grass huts to guard against illegal refugees from Congo). A diffident and gracious young man of 26, he has two children and unlike most of his neighbors, does not want any more. He wants them to get a good education. But, as one of the lucky few to work at Clouds, does he have running water in his house? No, not even Felix.

When we got a couple’s massage in a open-ended grass hut that looked out over the mountains, the young women talked over our heads in their local dialect. I wondered what they were saying about us. How strange did it seem to them to be massaging our pale bodies; how strange for us to be paying to be pummeled and greased; how strange for them to be going home to their tiny huts with dirt floors and no running water. This is what I imagined, but they were probably talking about what to cook for dinner. I’ll never know.

And what does the government of Yoweri Museveni do for these people? Worse than nothing. Yes, he has kept peace since 1986 in his autocratic way, but the schools are a disgrace because the government pays so little to teachers they do not go to work; the roads leading to the gorilla forests are in such bad shape, when it rains they are often impassable. Every four years Museveni comes to this southern part of his country and promises new roads; promises support for the biggest industry here- tourism — and four years later: nothing. And if you see pictures of his palace, called The State House, you know where the money is going.

And I hear in my head as I write, Anna singing in The King and I, “The children, the children, I’ll not forget the children. No matter where I go, I’ll always see those little faces looking up at me.” So sentimental, I know…but they are unforgettable. Local children came to perform traditional dances and songs for us at Clouds. Their joy in dancing and singing was contagious, and I was particularly taken with a saucer-eyed little girl who was a terrific dancer. We smiled at each other. At the end, she came to me and put her small dry hand in mine, and I joined her on the dance floor.

A REALLY, REALLY LONG DAY

It began with the rutted-road-two-hour drive in the rain back to Kisoro, and then to the border with Rwanda. I can’t quite find the literary allusion, but I have “seen” this place before — Heart of Darkness, A Bend in the River, something by Graham Greene — all of the above? Although we did not feel threatened, we felt uncomfortable, the objects of everyone’s attention. The place was teeming with people, sitting around, apparently going nowhere, doing nothing, watching us.

Everything moved in extreme slow motion. First stop, a dingy hut where the official stamped us out of Uganda, but spoke not a word. It was suffocatingly hot. This man pointed us to the next hut across the road where a knot of women sat chatting. As we approached they went silent. One produced a dirty thermometer and placed it on our foreheads. We had no fever. She passed us on to the next hut, where the impassive official with rimless glasses reviewed our papers down to the smallest detail. We stood quietly by, wondering if this was just routine or personal. He spoke.

“You are a writer…does that mean you are a journalist?”

“No, no, I just write fiction.”

“You are definitely not a journalist?”

“Definitely.”

He glared at me…hesitated…then waved us on. I have since read that journalists are considered personae non gratae in Rwanda these days…those who are critical of the Paul Kagame government tend to disappear.

And then we waited. We sat on the curb next to an old black Mercedes coupe with four flat tires that seemed to have been abandoned there long ago. Was its owner detained? What was everyone else waiting for? Where was our driver?

When he finally appeared, he told us how lucky we were that no buses were crossing over with us…then we would have really waited.

The moment we crossed the barrier into a rural border town in Rwanda, we were through the looking glass. People walking on the street were dressed more affluently — real shoes, skirts and slacks. I also noticed that these more affluent women wore their hair long, often in elaborate braids. In Uganda, especially in the countryside, most women had shaved heads. As we moved into farmland, the scene could have been lifted from a Jacob Lawrence painting: brightly colored clothing standing out against well-tended fields. Everyone seemed happily industrious, but I know that while Lawrence paintings look pretty, so much pain lies beneath. What was going on here?

We had been told that the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, does not tolerate corruption and has effected an amazing turn-around in Rwanda since the genocide of 1994…he has been in charge since then. Our driver related that in the old days, if you were stopped for speeding, you asked the police officer, “How much?” And for $5 you drove away. Today, if you are stopped for speeding and try to pay off the officer, you are fined for speeding and sent to jail for bribery…everyone knows the consequences. And speaking of everyone, on the fourth Saturday of the month, all businesses close down for half the day, and all citizens have to clean up around their homes, workplaces, streets and sidewalks. The president partakes in this countrywide event. All this sounded amazing, and later as we flew low over the capital — we were in a helicopter — the city looked to be thriving, and the streets were wide and clean. Our pilot, Toussaint, told us he had lived in Europe and visited the United States, but the only place in the world he wanted to live was his hometown, Kigali.

And yet, the constitution of the new Rwanda allows Kagame stay in power until 2034. 2034! Surely not a democracy according to his opponents and to some journalists, but does this government work for most of the people? How does this country overcome its past and move on? There are more questions than answers…

Yet another plane ride (the helicopter connected us to a commercial flight) delivered us to Arusha, Tanzania, right in the middle of rush hour. A thriving town, Arusha is spreading in all directions, with good-looking high-rise apartments going up alongside rickety shacks selling everything from mattresses to the ubiquitous Coca Cola and Vodafone. But there is basically one main two-lane road. It was pulsing with action, if not forward motion. Traffic consisted of big buses, mini-buses, school buses, a few private cars, tour group jeeps and boda-bodas. The latter are motorcycle taxis, so-named because they were originally used in East Africa to transport people from border to border without having to go through the paperwork of an official border crossing. Now they are everywhere — sometimes carrying as many as three full-grown male passengers, or a female passenger with all her marketing bags and two babies. Safe driving was not a priority. Besides the boda-bodas weaving in and out of the larger vehicular traffic, when the big buses saw a 50-yard empty piece of road in the opposite lane, they would pull out to pass only one car, regardless of the speed of the oncoming traffic. And the foot traffic: hundreds of school children heading home, each group in a different colored uniform, denoting their school’s identity; women strolling from store to store; men negotiating, palavering and wheeling-dealing; others just watching the world go by; and the ever-present boda- boda drivers hanging on every corner, hoping for a fare.

We asked about the road construction that slowed us down even more. A Chinese construction company was widening the road. We were told that the Chinese were building most of the new infrastructure in Tanzania, but that quality was often shoddy. (A few days later we travelled on another Chinese-built road that traversed animal migration routes. The traffic out in the bush was minimal, but the animals were already changing their patterns to avoid it. It did not take them long to discern that buses traveling at 80 miles an hour could be deadly.) The Chinese presence was barely noticeable, as all the workers seemed to be Africans, but occasionally we would see a man in a straw peasant hat instructing a group of workers…a foreman perhaps; and along the road we noticed advertisements for Chinese language schools. Young Tanzanians grow up speaking Swahili, English and a family tribal language…will Chinese will be their fourth?

As to politics, the Tanzanians are all hugely optimistic about their new president, John Magufuli, elected just last December. A straight-talking, but experienced politician, he has eschewed all the fringe benefits of his office — his inauguration was a chips and soda party instead of the usual grand affair; he has been firing sluggards and cracking down on graft; and he has initiated a once a month clean-up day like Rwanda’s. He has a long road to hoe, however, as the Tanzanian government has been entrenched in inefficiency and corruption for years. No one in Tanzania had a bad word to say about him, in contrast to so many Ugandans who were glumly resigned to the corrupt reign of Museveni.

The place to stay in Arusha is a coffee plantation converted to a posh hotel, Legendary Lodge. We were relieved to be deposited in this serene environment, poles apart from the sturm und drang of our traveling. An elegant dinner was served on a terrace overlooking a lush and fragrant garden, and we breathed deeply, trying to absorb all we had observed that day. Unfortunately, we were not alone for long; seated right beside us was a slovenly American wearing a slept-in sweat suit. Loud and potty-mouthed, he bragged throughout the evening to another set of Americans about his thousand-hectare ranch in Kenya and all his airplanes. ARG.

ELEPHANTS AND OTHER EXTRAORDINARY ENCOUNTERS

After a short plane ride into the bush, we were deposited on a grass runway at the entrance to Tanganire National Park. There we met Alex, our 28-year old guide, a young man of many talents and great charm. Spending the day with Alex in Tanganire was eye-popping, exhilarating! We mostly fraternized with elephants, and I could have stayed with them for hours more. There is something so mesmerizing about these matriarchal families, their interactions with each other and especially with their babies. We ascribe so many human qualities to them — the best of human qualities. (I think I would rather be an elephant than a gorilla.) I remember reading Cynthia Moss’ books about elephants back in the 80’s, wondering how she could devote so much time to just looking and listening. I think I can now understand.

By the way, in our search to find the elephants (the search is so much of the excitement of safari), Alex kept telling us to look for a huge anthill that moved. I loved the metaphor, but thought to myself, “Could the elephants in this park be brown and not gray?” I soon found out they are gray underneath the mud they all roll in to keep cool. Of course.

We spent four and a half days with Alex both in our open safari jeep and on foot, learning how to “see,” and learning about what we were seeing.

“Oh, I see a baboon in that tree!”

“How many?” asked Alex.

“Just that big one.”

“Keep looking.”

“OH, another, and another, and another.” The baobab tree was crowded with baboons…we just had to attune our powers of observation.

Our unique sighting was a white giraffe! To our knowledge, there are only two in the world today: one lives in the private concession where we stayed in Tanzania on the edge of Tanganire; the other has been seen in Kruger National Park in South Africa. Ours is named OMO, after the most popular laundry detergent in Tanzania….she is still a teen-ager. This white giraffe is not albino, because her eyes are not red, and you can detect brown spotting underneath her whitewash-like hide. OMO just does not have enough melanin to look like the rest of her family.

Alex spotted her where we saw absolutely nothing except grass and trees. She stood with several larger giraffes, all of them oblivious to our presence, and we watched them interact. OMO, as far as we could tell, was treated as any other member of this tower (group of giraffes standing still). It is only among humans in Tanzania that albino or albino-like children are shunned. A friend worked at a refuge for these children for two years: their mothers sneaked them out of their villages to this safe haven at night, so the local witch doctors would not condemn them as evil spirits or worse.

Our exposure to OMO was highly, highly unusual. Alex sent her photo to an association of wildlife guides to validate our sighting, and two days later it was in the Daily Telegraph in London. We were the first to see her in over a year.

Some more I cannot resist sharing:

Did you know that the male weaver builds the family nest, and if his wife does not approve of it she knocks it down? Alex and Allen guffawed over this one, as male humor transcends cultures.

Alex: “You know what we say here Allen? Happy wife, happy life.”

Allen: “You know the two words that make for a happy marriage, Alex? ‘Yes, dear.’”

My contribution: “Of course you are both right…dears.”

Another bit of avian studies: It is said that the lilac breasted roller is the most beautiful bird in Africa because God designed him first. When it came to voice, however, this gorgeous bird got a crackly little chirp. So the lilac breasted roller asked God for a better voice, and God said, “But you are first in beauty you greedy bird, so unfortunately you must be last in song.”

And we learned more from “Sock-in-neigh” (phonetic spelling), a Masai warrior who accompanied Allen, Alex and me on our morning walks. There was the “hurry-up-and-wait” bush with its thorns facing inward, rather than out. A lion being chased by a Masai might easily run into it to hide, but once he does, he is cooked, because the inward facing thorns make it very difficult and painful for him to escape.

And I now know which plant leaf is used for toothaches (it kills the nerve), which plant stanches the blood of a cow, and most importantly of all, which plant’s velvety leaf is called Masai toilet paper….

SLOW SAFARI AND ROLE MODELS

It felt as if we were living in a movie set, but it could not have been more real. The opportunity to walk each day made it seem so much more natural, and yet at the same time, even more exciting. Every day we strolled across the plains with Sock-in-neigh…no weapons except his spear, and we felt safe…among giraffes, zebras, impalas, wildebeests, monkeys and wart hogs. Of course, ever cautious, I asked Alex about lions. “Oh yes, they are here too, but of no danger because they have plenty to eat, so they are not interested in us. And besides, when Sock-in-neigh was a young man he killed a lion with his spear.” We saw plenty of lion tracks, but no lions to test Sock-in-neigh’s prowess.

One day we learned to stalk elephants, and that day we were accompanied by Nick, an experienced hunter, and his very heavy large rifle (I tried hoisting it to my shoulder, and knew it could defend us if needed). We crept up slowly alongside a group of young males, munching on trees. Nick explained the three circles of safety to us: far enough away that they would not notice us at all; close enough (50–30 yards?) that we could feel we were in their space and safe enough as long as we were downwind; and too close. We stood behind a tree and watched, until Nick, ever vigilant, felt the wind change, and we slowly backed away into the outer circle. I realized I had barely been breathing for 25 minutes.

We stayed at Little Chem Chem tented camp (five luxurious tents) and Chem Chem Lodge (eight luxurious cottages) where you decide what you want to do when, rather than adhering to a pre-arranged schedule. Some days we were with Alex all day; another we just loafed in front of our tent and watched the world walk by; other days we did a little of both. We slept to the night sounds of Africa — the din of birds and insects. We felt the silence of the midday heat and stared at the big, big cloudless sky. But this does not mean there were no surprises: late breakfast under the branches of a giant baobab tree; picnic lunches wherever we cared to stop, unfold our chairs and dig into our tiffin boxes; sundowners on the shores of Lake Manyara watching flocks of pink flamingos fly under the setting sun.

Chem Chem was developed by a young couple, Fabia Bausch, a former investment banker from Switzerland, and Nicolas Negre, a former big game hunter from France, according to their principle of “slow safari.” Instead of buzzing around in a jeep, they want you to experience being close to the land and the animals — as a hunter would be — without the final kill. They are devoted to the environment, the ecology and the people of their corner of Tanzania. They do not actually own their land, but rent it from the government — hence it is called a concession. For all the time and money and passion they have invested, it could be taken away from them at any time…although I cannot imagine it ever would. They employ so many of the local inhabitants and teach them new skills; they support the state school so that it is a model of elementary education; they prevent poaching, and on and on. Alex told us that even in the quiet season, Fabia and Nicolas work late into the night. Theirs is not a rich man’s hobby, but a true labor of love.

And then there is Alex. We talked about everything. Married to an Austrian who works for an NGO in Arusha, he now is the father of two little boys. Both families have whole-heartedly accepted this marriage. (We never got as personal with Doreen and Christian at Clouds about their marriage.) Alex is half Masai and half Iraqw, and on his Masai side he has two grandmothers who get along very well. Although he went to school to become a wildlife guide, he could not get a job when he graduated, so he threw pride aside and started at the bottom as a porter for treks on Mt. Kilimanjaro. He worked his way up. Not only is he smart, he is a wonderful storyteller (the best way to make people remember what they are seeing), a phenomenal spotter, and much, much wiser than anyone I know his age.

In one of our meandering conversations, I told Alex about a woman we met at Clouds who tracked the gorillas the day after we did. She was my age and confided the following story: At the end of that long, arduous walk the guide said he wanted to especially commend her for completing the hike — “You have done so well for a woman your age,” he said. She was horrified — proud of her fitness, irrespective of her age. Because she did not react, but sat there dumbfounded, he repeated the commendation. I told Alex that I knew how she felt.

Alex looked at me seriously.

“You do not understand that in our culture, he was giving her a great compliment. We do not revere youth as you do in America, but rather we revere our elders. To this day when I walk into my grandparents’ home I lower my head to show respect for them. It is my grandfather who is my confidant about everything. It is not that I do not love my father, but I respect my grandfather’s wisdom that comes to him with age.

“When I would be on the bus going home from school, I would always give a seat to an older person. And an older person would always ask me how I was, often ask if I was hungry, and share whatever he was eating. You see, I was taught to treat all elders as if they were my grandparents, and in their eyes, I was the same as their grandchildren. We mess up a lot in Africa, but this tradition is one to be admired. My wife loves it, and spends a lot of her free time with my grandmother. She has learned a lot.”

I think of this conversation often. I think it has actually changed my attitude about myself.

DESPAIR AND DELIGHT

What a combination of experiences and emotions…every day in Africa. We could not help feeling deep pessimism over the population growth in the countries we visited where the economy can never catch up to needs; disgusted and cynical about government public trust; ineffably sad at the plight of so many impoverished children. And yet…

We found tiny wedges of change and hope: black women pilots; young black professionals managing the Serena Hotel in Kampala; idealistic Europeans trying to preserve the great wild places and create jobs for young locals; kind Felix; wise Alex….

We devoured the natural beauty and wildlife wonders. As I recall sitting on the shore of Lake Manyara at dusk, I have to quote Alexandra Fuller, one of my favorite writers about Africa (just substitute “lake” for “river” below).

It was the time of day when the confusion of color, the churn of cooler air supplanting the heat of the day, the miracle of the journeying river — everything about being alive — seemed more improbable and fleeting and precious than usual.

Africa made me feel that way too.

January 2016

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