“Every time you say ‘Africa is…’ the words crumble and break. From every generalization you must exclude at least five countries. And just as you think you have nailed down a certainty, a defining characteristic, you find the opposite is true in other places. Africa is full of surprises.”
“To condescend so witheringly, as Batuman does in her review, to the literature of ‘developing nations’ — these sorts of rhetorical moves are strangely anachronistic, not to mention ill-informed, and would embarrass even the less than politically correct among us a little bit, were we called upon to justify them. It’s not that we believe that the airing of socio-political grievances is, in itself, likely to produce a good novel. It’s that, when you actually take the time to read a work like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, you find something a lot more complicated and compelling than Batuman’s snarky slurs would imply. One can be all for the deflation of liberal pieties without being a gleeful ignoramus about it, as though literary journalism needs its own Ann Coulter.”
I got back last week from another trip to el DF. It was warm, comforting, and just a little unfamiliar. Here’s a short piece I did for NewYorker.com on my stay there.
Photo via The New Yorker
The whole journey over — from the shuttle to Newark airport, to the plane to London, to the long layover in London Heathrow, to even approaching the airport in Nairobi — I was in a state of dazed detachment. I rationally knew that I was on my way back to Africa, but the fact hadn’t emotionally registered. Despite the excruciatingly long trip, it still felt like I was just hopping on the plane to Mexico City or maybe Atlanta. But once I set foot in the Nairobi airport, that weirdly charming relic from the 1970s with its orange-and-brown color scheme, linoleum floors and scooped plastic chairs, the rules started coming back to me.
Rules like: Have dollars ready for the visa fee, and dollars printed after 2004 at that, if you want to get through Immigration in a timely manner. Rules like: Don’t try to skip the Customs inspection man (even though it’s easy to, he’s kind of hidden amid all the baggage inspectors) on the way to the Arrivals lobby if you don’t want to get scolded and/or all your luggage searched. Rules like: Always be genuinely polite and don’t forget to greet people, including strangers. This isn’t New York. Rules like: Make friends with your taxi driver. You’ll use him a lot since he’s probably the only one who knows how to get to your house on a random corner on a random street in a random leafy neighborhood. Rules like: Settle in for the ride. Nairobi traffic is hell. Rules like: Men in suits ride their bikes effortlessly here. Rules like: This is East Africa. Take a deep breath and relax.
Photo via MicroCapital Society
American writer Charles Bowden has spent decades straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, writing gripping stories about the myriad of people caught in the bloody, messy drug trade, from hired drug cartel assassins to brave but scared Mexican journalists.
Now he’s back with yet another book on Mexico, this time on the murder capital Ciudad Juarez. Hear him talk on NPR about Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields here. Recently, three people associated with the U.S. consulate were murdered, while numerous young people have been killed as of late in cases of supposed mistaken identity.
5,000 people have been killed in Juarez in three years. Yet, as Bowden says, the deaths have frighteningly become “part of the ordinary noise of life.”
Photo via TIME
A year ago, I wrote my first post on Exodus, about adjusting both to life as a foreigner in Mexico and to the fact that Barack Obama was elected president.
As I now prepare to leave Mexico in the coming months and explore more parts of the world, I look forward to sharing the last of my Mexico stories and to another year running Exodus. I am also working on my first book. Check out the new page “the book” for more information on that project …
Mexican journalists are dying at an alarming rate in Mexico — the country is the deadliest place in the Americas to be a journalist, and among the deadliest in the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, says at least 24 have been killed since 2000, and seven have vanished in the past three years. (That number has surely risen.) Many of the victims had reported on police ties to cartels. Some are suspected of accepting drug money, but it’s difficult to determine because the killings are barely investigated. Of the 24 cases, the committee said, only one had been solved. Some gunmen attacked specific journalists, and others entire newsrooms.
The war on journalists — both by thugs and police negligence — has changed the way most border publications do their work. Stories on drug casualties and corruption run with no bylines, and only the bare facts run without further investigation. A few brave teams based in Mexico City still travel up to the border to report on drug-related violence, but their trips are becoming less and less frequent. A friend told me that a team of photographers returned to Mexico City from a trip last year to Ciudad Juarez the very next day.
All of which makes this story by gifted writer Charles Bowden even more shocking. I always assumed drug cartels and corrupt police were Mexican journalists’ most viral enemies. Turns out, we need to add the Mexican army to that list, too.
And here, an earlier Human Rights Watch report on Mexican army torture allegations.
Photo via TIME
Recently published was a fashion story called “Out of Africa,” about a supposed trend among big-name designers who are drawing inspiration from “African” fashion.
Besides the obvious, and usual, stereotyping of Africa as one monolithic place that doesn’t possess a myriad of fashion traditions from South Africa to Nigeria to Morocco, the references were just . . . off.
The pants in the photo above are wicked, but the description:
“The colonial world has also been mined for inspiration. For Ralph Lauren, the colonial looks fell somewhere between India and Africa, with low-crotch pants- those in between sarouel and jodhpur styles that are so a la mode this summer.”
The colonial world? Props to the writer for at least making decades of brutal colonization sound charming. In another description, the writer raves over the “tribal fabrics” of another designer. In another, she calls “African” style a “drumbeat.”
While it is always welcome to read about contemporary African culture, it seems harder and harder to not see those stories reduced to one generalization after another.
Read this brilliant critique of the article here.
And for any writer or person interested in Africa, this article about how NOT to write about Africa is priceless.
Photo via The New York Times