“Nairobi’s a beautiful place, I hear. Wouldn’t mind stopping off there one of these days. Going to Johannesburg, I am.” He explained that as part of a degree program in geology, the British government had arranged for him and his classmates to work with South African mining companies for a year. “Seems like they have a shortage of trained people there, so if we’re luck they’ll take us on for a permanent spot. Best chance we have for a decent wage, I reckon – unless you’re willing to freeze out on some bleeding North Sea oil rig. Not for me, thank you.” I mentioned that if given the chance, a lot of South Africans might be interested in getting such training.
“Well, I’d imagine you’re right about that,” he said. “Don’t much agree with the race policy there. A shame, that.” He thought for a moment. “But then the rest of Africa’s falling apart now, isn’t it? Least from what I can tell. The blacks in South Africa aren’t starving to death like they do in some of these Godforsaken countries. Don’t envy them, mind you, but compared to some poor bugger in Ethiopia – “
A stewardess came down the aisle with headphones for rent, and the young man pulled out his wallet. “’Course, I try and stay out of politics, you know. Figure it’s none of my business. Same thing back home – everybody on the dole, the old men in Parliament talking the same old rubbish. Best thing to do is mind your own little corner of the world, that’s what I say.” He found the outlet for the headphones and slipped them over his ears. “Wake me up when they bring the food, will you,” he said before reclining his seat for a nap.
I pulled out a book from my carry-on bag and tried to read. It was a portrait of several African countries written by a Western journalist who’d spent a decade in Africa; an old Africa hand, he would be called, someone who apparently prided himself on the balanced assessment. The book’s first few chapters discussed the history of colonialism at some length: the manipulation of tribal hatreds and the caprice of colonial boundaries, the displacements, the detentions, the indignities large and small. The early heroism of independence figures like Kenyatta and Nkrumah was duly noted, their later drift toward despotism attributed at least in part to various Cold War machinations.
But by the book’s third chapter, images from the present had begun to outstrip the past. Famine, disease, the coups and countercoups led by illiterate young men wielding AK-47s like shepherd sticks – if Africa had a history, the writer seemed to say, the scale of current suffering had rendered such history meaningless. Poor buggers. Godforsaken countries.
I set the book down, feeling a familiar anger flush through me, an anger all the more maddening for its lack of clear target. Beside me the young Brit was snoring softly now, his glasses askew on his finshaped nose. Was I angry at him? I wondered. Was it his fault that, for all my education, all the theories in my possession, I had had no ready answers to the questions he’d posed? How much could I blame him for wanting to better his lot? Maybe I was just angry because of his easy familiarity with me, his assumption that I, as an American, even a black American, might naturally share in his dim view of Africa; an assumption that in his world at least marked a progress of sorts, but that for me only underscored my own uneasy status: a Westerner not entirely at home in the West, an African on his way to a land full of strangers.
[Keep Reading Here]
*Extracts from "Dreams from My Father - A Story of Race and Inheritance", Copyright © 1995, 2004 by Barack Obama
(Thanks A. for bringing me this book all the way from Washington DC as a gift)