Watching Africa from a plane

I wrote this 8 or 9 days ago, while on a plane and am just now getting around to posting it.

It'€™s either 7:12 PM Friday or 2:12 AM Saturday. I'€™m somewhere over the Mediterranean, having just passed over Tunisia. Sunrise will happen too late for me to see the Sahara. It's a mass of beige on the tiny map; a green dotted line treks doggedly forward over a baked wasteland about the size of the entirety of the US east of the Mississippi. It's wrong to talk about Africa without talking about the enormity of it. Once that's cleared, we'll be in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I doubt there will be any on offer- and it won't be at all an appropriate time to drink it- but I'd love to try some Tej. This is likely moot as I have no Ethiopian currency. I'll be glad for a coffee and the chance to buy my kids some postcards.

I'm not sure who else is on this plane. Quite a few Africans, of course, but more white Americans than I was expecting. At least one is wearing a purple t-shirt with letters arranged in the shape of a cross. Are they all missionaries? Well, not all, obviously. I'm not and neither is the woman sitting next to me. She works with the university in Addis. And me? I've got this laptop and my brain and I'm going to try to share the contents of both with some students in Rwanda. I'll have help, of course. I remain intellectually embarrassed to be involved at all. It was only my eagerness to travel, to experience and to learn that got me here. That and, I expect, a surfeit of volunteers.

Still, the question remains: just what are we all doing in Africa? I can only answer the question for myself and there are two bits of it. The first is the easy bit. I love to travel. This trip has enough altruism that I don't feel too guilty leaving my family for 10 days on another of my crazy whims. The second is different. If the trip had been to Peru, Slovakia, or Sri Lanka it would not have caught me the same way. Africa. The continent which is too big to fail, but for which everyone has such bleak hopes. Africa. Origin of humanity. Eden. Africa, source of cheap natural resources, from oil to uranium to diamonds to its most devalued commodity: free human labor. Africa the home of failed states, dictatorships, foreign-drawn borders, heart of darkness, punishing sun, steamy jungles and parched sand. Africa. The place I'd chosen to ignore for the first 40 years of my life. The place that draws me in the same way other places have, with the whispered voice telling me, “There must be more than this. Everyone else surely has it wrong. The only way you'll find out is to go there.”

This won't be an exhaustive experience, mind. It's really just 9 days. Nowhere enough for insight, answers or truth. Yet more than I had when I woke up this morning. Before I dragged myself from my home, bleary-eyed, drove through the darkness to fly against the sun and compressed one day and half a world while sitting on a plane. Tomorrow, I’ll rise again and dust my eyes to greet the African dawn.

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