African Ramblings: Putting a Human Face on Distant Lands of News Stories


That “Africa”, nebulous netherworld and neverland that it is in my imagination, is comprised of little, uninformed portraits, characters and blurbs on the news (usually about something horrible), is little wonder. I have written before about how Africa is something massive, which – even if trying to absorb the idea and place systematically – would take time and only be possible in increments.

Africa is an idea more than a reality to me. Not just because I have not been anywhere on this vast and ridiculously diverse continent but also because “Africa” as a concept is kind of an idea. One giant landmass it may be but this very vastness and diversity makes it impossible to categorize or talk about as one giant entity. People may refer to themselves as “African” but can there be an “African” identity in the same way there is an American one? It strikes me as more like trying to convince Europeans to identify as “Europeans” before their nationalities. It is not that one never identifies as “African” or “European” but neither label tells an observer much of anything.

As usual I am consuming Africa-related matters in small bites, like geographical, cultural, historical amuse-bouche. Not always a tasty sampling.

Today’s thoughts inevitably turn to the most newsworthy of Africa’s countries.


The 20-year mark since the genocide in Rwanda has sparked a virtually endless flow of news and related content, ranging from reconciliation (and photography projects chronicling that complex and painful process) to the “miracle” of modern Rwanda, from the firm and perhaps dictatorial hand of President Paul Kagame, to the growing power of women (who are the majority of Rwanda’s population once the massacre ended), from restoration, reconciliation and commemoration in societies torn apart by this kind of catastrophic human damage as well as individual stories about personal conscience, reminiscent of World War II-era stories of people who took in and hid Jews at considerable personal risk to themselves (and how those stories often came to late quite a long while after the war).

“It’s now 20 years after genocide,” Kamuronsi says. “And in every commemoration, every movie, we see stories of survivors, we see stories of perpetrators. We see less stories of rescuers.”

Those stories are particularly important, he says, for the more than half of the country’s population born after the genocide, to see that not every Rwandan played their ethnically assigned role of killer or victim.

Yet most of Rwanda’s rescuers are not officially recognized. A government program to give rescuers an official “thank you” was put on hold after canvassing just 20 percent of the country and identifying fewer than 300 of them. In comparison, Yad Vashem — the Holocaust memorial and research center — was seeking out the stories of German rescuers, the “righteous among nations,” by the 1950s — less than 10 years after the war.” (From NPR)

Before the genocide (and the film, Hotel Rwanda, which chronicled the 100 days of horror that ensued – and of which the first ten minutes were ruined when I saw it at a cinema in Iceland because the idiot projectionist let some horrible George Michael music play right over the top of the film and its soundtrack. Iceland: home of the world’s worst film projectionists – you heard it here first), all Rwanda was to me was mountain gorillas at Karisoke Research Center, Dian Fossey and a brief story an election-monitor colleague, Randall, had told me about being in Rwanda and how the air there – and in every African city – always smelled like diesel fuel.

After the genocide, unfortunately, genocide is almost all Rwanda is in the collective public memory. But it should and could be so much more. How does a country referred to as “nonviable” become a “success story” (despite the dark side of that success)?

“During Kagame’s two-decade rule, Rwanda has made spectacular progress. A country famously deemed “nonviable” in the mid-1990s has become one of Africa’s best-run, most orderly, least corrupt, and safest states, with a booming economy (Rwanda’s GDP has grown by an average of eight percent in recent years). But Rwanda’s success has come with a darker side: opposition politicians have been jailed or killed under mysterious circumstances, journalists complain of harassment, and Kigali has been regularly criticized for meddling in neighboring Congo’s long-running civil war.” (From Foreign Affairs)

“Kagame is said to admire the limited democratic models of Singapore and South Korea, where economic competence is valued over political liberty. As the world observes and judges Rwanda, they will find a country tenuously balancing its need for stability and growth against the virtues of open democracy.” (From Harvard Politics)

Maybe this autocracy is good enough for the population for now – certainly craving stability, growth, opportunity and tranquility over “personal freedom”.


Uganda often comes up – whether because of its own problems with dictatorship (a story also told in the film The Last King of Scotland), conflict and disease (both positive and negative – Uganda had considerable success in controlling the spread of HIV but this appears to be moving backwards now; it is one of the countries in Africa to have had an Ebola outbreak as front-page news; or because of issues like Uganda’s notables (such as Joseph Kony) or issues (homosexuality is illegal and can carry a maximum life sentence in prison).

I sometimes joked that I would, if given the chance, exile people to Uganda. And that was (apart from a few of the aforementioned highlights) the sum total of my Uganda-related knowledge.

Recently, though, I saw a report on Al Jazeera about pain management and the world shortage of morphine – and what role Uganda plays in this. It is not really an issue I would have considered – I had no idea that there was any shortage of morphine or that this is in large part due to the ill-conceived and long-running “war on drugs” waged mostly by the United States. Likewise, I had no idea that there was some kind of stigma attached to its use.

“Red tape and misinformation are to blame for the world’s unequal distribution of medical morphine, and it is patients in the developing world who are losing out.

But Uganda has become the first country in Africa to allow nurses to prescribe morphine to patients.” From AJE)

It is hard to imagine that palliative care, particularly in Africa, where the disease burden is so high, in the form of pain management would be such a difficult matter. The Pain Project has documented this struggle.

“The International Reporting Program traveled to Ukraine, Uganda and India to find out, and to document the human toll of this hidden human rights crisis. It turns out a combination of bureaucratic hurdles and the chilling effect of the global war on drugs are largely to blame, leaving humanitarians scrambling to work outside the law — or change the law — to bring relief to suffering patients all over the world.

The Pain Project has produced documentaries on this issue for CBS Sunday Morning, Al Jazeera People & Power, and Global 16×9, reaching millions of people and gaining international media attention.” (From The International Reporting Program)


Finally, there’s Guinea – frankly not a country I thought about at all (other than an occasional mention of it, and a follow-up question in the form of, “Are you sure you don’t mean Guyana?” Not even the same continent! Even Wikipedia has to caution the reader not to confuse Guinea with Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea or – seriously! – Papua New Guinea!) until it appeared in recent news reports about its Ebola outbreak and attacks on treatment centers and universal airport screening for Ebola upon departure from Guinea. In Guinea, the death toll has topped 100, and worries about its spread are on the rise.

As the disease has traveled, neighboring Liberia has reported 21 cases, Mali reported a few, and bordering Senegal closed access to and from Guinea, citing outbreak fears.

Incidentally it is through these kinds of stories that I learn other things about these countries – under the siege of an infectious disease outbreak or a civil war or a massacre/genocide, the human face of these countries comes to light.

And while the human face is exactly what I want to strive to see, I did come across this map that should help with rethinking Africa in some ways – I have seen it before but came across it again just as I was writing and decided to share it again.

Keep your distance – don’t assume familiarity


I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

-WH Auden from “The Letter

For most of the last several years, vivid memories of an endless (well, it was endless for as long as it lasted anyway) correspondence, marked by a repeated violation of character and word limits, keep exceeding my capacity for endurance. A long correspondence, a brief, intense meeting and a cut-and-run final act – followed by years of agonizing, wondering and questioning ever since.

I could not handle the intensity of it – or the directness. It had been pointed out to me early on all the little “added things” I throw in at the end of various statements. Like when I said I would be inclined to meet “if we ever wanted to” — this is classic me. I have trouble making a definitive statement without any qualifiers: “I would like to meet you.” And leave it at that. I always add some caveat to the ends, non-committal, that leaves an open ending or an out for the other person because I don’t like the idea of imposing my will or wishes (even if they are individuals strong enough to just say they are not interested). There is something unsavory to me about assuming too much familiarity with anyone, ever, which extends sometimes to not expressing my own feelings and wishes because I don’t want to put any undue pressure on someone else. Unfortunately I can take this to extremes. It is so second nature for me now that I don’t even realize I am doing it. I always feel like I am being more polite this way, but a few people have pointed out that this just comes across as though I am just not interested. (It does not help that I apparently give people this harsh, serious, aloof impression in general.)

All my little addenda ending sentences, offering ways out or at least options, made it seem that I was not invested in the outcome, that I did not care what happened either way and that I had no real feelings. To me, it’s clear that this is ultimately a defense mechanism, as anyone with a history of shyness can certainly understand.

It is surprising, in any case, to have traveled through this correspondence. It could have been such a disaster – pen pals and online communications and trying to “meet” people in this fashion can be such a disaster. What is surprising to me in particular is that there are so many people out there trying to do this online thing but who are not at all good or expressive writers. I prefer people who can convey something real and substantial in writing and don’t think I would get along very well with people who are not at least trying to write coherently. I would in fact overlook people because of their bad writing or lack of effort in the same shallow way someone would discount another simply for how they look. This is probably informed by my whole life as a writer, my history as a pen pal and basing whole friendships solely on the written word. And yet even my obsession with precision in communication, I created a complete disaster in this story.

The way I handled the aftermath of the correspondence and meeting is nothing short of shameful. I ran (so far away). All this time I have contemplated whether I should do something about it – reach out, apologize, clear the air – but I have also grappled with whether I would be doing this just to assuage my own guilt and conscience. I never wanted to do it to make myself feel better – I was tempted to do it to have a clean slate – but if regret and apologetic explanation would only open a door best left closed, what would be the point of that? I have tried to learn in recent years to let go and let closed doors stay that way – one of life’s hardest lessons for ever-curious me. That said, not a day has gone by that this correspondence and the upheaval of its influence did not weigh on me.