A slightly unshaven, probably naive and clearly disoriented young man sticks out in Africa. That's probably why drug lords abducted me during my first evening on the continent. That's also probably why, just before I returned to Washington, I was invited deep into the Botswana savanna by a philosopher who taught me to eat ants.
I went to Africa because I was in a funk, having just graduated from college and been bopped on the nose during my initial foray into the working world. I didn't have a plan, or even a path. I just wanted to go someplace different. So I grabbed a college friend and went to Africa, where I spent the next four months bouncing through Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. Mostly, I traveled by bus--except, of course, for when myoddly gracious drug lord abductors threw me into the back of their van.
When I left the United States, I had two contrasting images of Africa in my head. First, the stereotypical images of anarchy, starving children and poverty that seem to dominate every American's impressions of the continent. To quote a slightly apocalyptic essay by the Atlantic Monthly's Robert Kaplan that I came across while flying over the Sahara: "Disease, overpopulation, unprovoked crime, scarcity of resources, refugee migrations, the increasing erosion of nation-states and international borders, and the empowerment of private armies, security firms and international drug cartels are now most tellingly demonstrated through a West African prism."
Beyond these desperate images, I also expected to find a continent that I had romanticized: an isolated land of music, magic, strong traditional culture and beautiful people that have survived with dignity through terrible hardship; a land captured in a flaming black-and-orange painting of elegant silky figures crossing a river in a canoe, a painting that a Ghanaian artist had once traded to me in a New York subway. A land deserving these lines of poetry, set to be read to a driving African Congo beat, by Leopold Senghor, the former president of Senegal:
". . . The scents of remembered flowers in whose happy shouts I bathe.
The green gold of her complexion, softer than copper
Was as smooth as her soul exhausted in the sun and trade wind,
Bouquets of palm fronds above primal fears,
O Ancient Forest, lost roads, hear this Pilgrim's toneless song."
I entered Africa in Tangiers, the port city between Morocco and Spain--or more pertinently, the port city between Africa and Europe and, to some, the port between struggle and wealth. The residents of Tangiers seem either to want to leave or to fleece the people who come; many, I suppose, want both. Mohammed, the aforementioned drug lord, convinced me that he was a fellow musician, brought me to his house promising a special religious feast and then spent a day trying to convince me that I should distribute his family's marijuana throughout the United States. I politely declined and pleaded poverty. Mohammed gave me a cold fish head to eat and then demanded $60 for his trouble. I obliged--didn't have much choice--and found myself tossed into a train station the next morning.
I wanted to go home: I had been in Africa less than 24 hours, and I'd already been robbed and taken advantage of. Moping, I watched a young man approach from the other side of the tracks. He smiled, pointed at my guitar and asked me in broken English (a language that, along with broken French, smiles and patience, is enough to get by in every country I went to), to play him a song. One hour later, after we'd sung and shared music, my train arrived and I headed south, ready to resume my journey.
Two weeks after my disaster in Morocco, I traveled with friends to Ndiabene Toube, a small village in rural Senegal that has been around for 900 years. The village is divided into large family compounds, three or four men each with three or four wives and each wife with three or four children. Everyone eats from communal bowls without utensils. The day consists of planting what can be planted, harvesting what can be harvested and cooking what can be cooked. Every day, someone will go to the nearest city to sell whatever is left over and to buy whatever else is needed. The day ends when the sun goes down because there's no electricity, and, it being the desert, there's nothing to burn but sand and dry air.
According to many Africans, Ndiabene Toube is an example of the "real Africa": a beautiful, isolated village that may be poor by Western standards but where poverty doesn't matter. One of the villagers spends six months of the year in a Chicago street market, earning money that he brings back home for the time he treasures with his culture and his home.
"Do you ever think of just staying in the United States?" I asked him, relishing the fact that, after living in Chicago, his English was perfect.
"Sometimes, but I couldn't ever give this up."
"But wouldn't you be a lot richer if you stayed in Chicago?"
My new friend answered with laughter. Trying to measure the wealth of Ndiabene Toube by calculating its GNP would be like trying to measure the beauty of a symphony by counting the notes.
Obviously, not every place is like Ndiabene Toube. Three hours south, Senegal's capital of Dakar swarms with discontent. Like most of the big cities I visited, it isn't quite as bad as the typical West African city described by Kaplan--"a nightmarish Dickensian spectacle to which Dickens himself would never have given credence"--but it's bad. Millions of people crowd into tiny spaces and the stench of urine overwhelms the city. Goats roam around, surviving off garbage until they are grabbed, tethered to the top of a bus and brought squealing, along with dozens of bruised passengers, to their next destination. Soon after I arrived, I realized that the hotel I had checked into didn't just cater to shoestring travelers; it also had a more licentious evening clientele in mind.
I grabbed a train out of Dakar and headed east, dodging the civil war in nearby Sierra Leone, into the deserts of Mali and a beautiful land known as the Dogon, half a day's journey south of Timbuktu.
Mali's Dogon country is a series of small villages that run along a giant extended cliff. The villages have been around for thousands of years, ever since the original settlers smoked the pygmies out of their tiny homes. In one village, there is a man who lives in a cave near the top of the cliff. He is not allowed to drink anything but rainwater, and he can only come down once a year. He's getting old now and, when he dies, his son will have to move up the cliff to replace him, just as he replaced his father several decades before.
After descending from the old man's dwelling, I sat by a stump, picked up my guitar and started to play. Within minutes, a child who couldn't have been more than 5 came up to me and started stamping his feet in the rhythm of the music. Soon, three more children came and joined him in the dancing, figuring out the syncopated rhythms as though they had been dancing every minute of their short lives. Within 20 minutes, some of the older villagers had come by with their traditional, guitar-like instruments, and suddenly the evening became alive, a festive celebration of music and dancing.
The next night, I left with my friend and my guitar for a short walk on the outskirts of the village. Before long, 20 children surrounded us and started singing. Soon more joined in and we all started dancing. By the end of the evening, I had learned a Dogon traditional song with words that I could never spell, had taught 50 children how to sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" and was weary from dancing in joyous circles. I had left the chaos of Dakar, Dickens and Kaplan to return to the beauty of Senghor's idealized land:
"O sing of the elemental light and sing of the silence announcing
The ivory gong of the rising Sun . . ."
I left Mali and battled the African public transportation system until I was finally dumped in Ouagadougou, the poor capital of Burkina Faso, the poorest country on Earth. Burkina Faso, in Burkinabe, means "land of the good-natured people," a fitting name, as I would soon find out from the first man I asked about his nation's economic situation.
"We will never be rich. We have no ports; we have no natural resources; our neighbors are poor as can be. Maybe if you moved us in between the United States, France and Canada. But that's not going to happen and, anyway, we don't really mind."
I arrived in Burkina for the Africa Cup of soccer, a sporting competition that is a sort of combination Olympics and Super Bowl, and quickly scalped tickets to a game between the home team and neighboring Guinea--a game that Burkina needed to win to advance to the quarterfinals. Arriving a mere two hours early, we never had a chance to get to our seats; the stadium was already packed, and tens of thousands of people had broken through the outer gates to wait, slammed up against the entrance, desperately trying to get inside.
We eventually got into the press box by climbing through a window, waving to the security guard and pretending to be journalists. Soon, I was seated next to a reporter from the BBC, watching as Burkina and Guinea battled back and forth until, just before the final whistle sounded, a Burkina player broke through and scored on a glorious header. One to nothing; Burkina won. The crowd exploded and swarmed the field, and a celebration erupted of a type that I assume I will never see again--unless, of course, I am someday engulfed in a revolution.
After the game, as I tried to walk back to my hotel through the frenzied crowds and madly honking motorcycles that would dominate the streets until sunrise, I asked a young man what he thought the night would be like.
"I don't know; this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to this country."
Having traveled through West Africa, I then flew south from Togo to Zimbabwe, deliberately passing over Nigeria (where the military regime had just recently renamed the U.S. Embassy's street "Louis Farrakhan Way") and the not-so-democratic Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), and then moved on to Botswana, "Africa's Switzerland," a country with one of the world's fastest economic growth rates over the past 10 years.
Botswana is a beautiful country that has somehow managed to maintain its wilderness and natural resources while propelling a booming economy. There is no place for Botswana in the stereotypical negative model of Africa that most Americans have; the country isn't mentioned once in Kaplan's essay. If anyplace deserves the dashing orange painting of Africa that I was given in the New York subway, surely it's Botswana.
In Maun, a small city south of the greatest elephant sanctuary in the world, I met a man named Yssel who works in town trying to stop trophy hunting but who believes that real life only happens when one is alone in the Botswana savanna. A week after I met him, he invited me to his house, deep in the bush where lions outnumber people, and engaged me in a discussion about the problems of the world and of Africa.
"I guess the main problem is that we all live in boxes and never challenge our fundamental values."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Like eating ants. Ants taste great; it just never occurs to us to eat them."
"So we should eat ants?"
"If we want to find ourselves, we have to challenge our boxes."
I figured that Yssel was probably right, walked outside, sprayed an ant hole in a baobab tree with a hose, watched the ants come charging out and grabbed a handful. They were red ants and they tasted good, if a little sweet. I got one stuck in my throat and Yssel laughed.
I left Africa from Johannesburg two weeks later, educated and changed, but still leaving much of an unexplored world behind. However, it is comforting to know that, even as I type, there's a man on the cliff in the Dogon catching rain water, perhaps waiting for a dancing child to come up and replace him--perhaps a young child who can sing a verse or two of "Puff the Magic Dragon." Nick Thompson is a freelance writer and musician in New York. CAPTION: In the tiny town of Ndiabene Toube, Senegal, the author (far left) strikes a chord with some villagers. ec CAPTION: Balancing act: An African woman uses her head to carry supplies. ec CAPTION: The Ndiabene Toube villager, center, spends six months each year working in a Chicago market, earning money that he brings back home. ec