Saturday, May 3, 2014

Expats and other Exotic Breeds

Travelling alone to Ethiopia was a novel experience.  I have flown alone before, of course, but always knowing that there was something or someone familiar waiting at the other end of my voyage; this time, I was flying into the unknown.  I had the names and numbers of a few Peace Corps volunteers and a couple of Ethiopians from Couchsurfing, but other than that slim assurance, I was (pun intended) winging it.

Having been forced into an awkward flight arrangement by my last minute travel changes, I had an awful 14-hour layover in Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta airport.  I quickly located the one coffeeshop and bar, a branch of Nairobi Java House, and almost immediately fell in with a group of six heavily tattooed and dreadlocked Italian volunteers who had been on my flight from Yaounde.  They had been evacuated from Maroua following the most recent round of kidnappings, and were now headed en masse to Tanzania, to finish their year of service there.  They were a lively group, speaking mostly Italian, but occasionally dropping into French or heavily accented English for my sake, and we traded tales of being evacuated and relocated.

Danilo got a 33 tattoo in commemoration of Cameroon. Definitely better than the baton de manioc tattoo I was planning...
Soon enough they packed off to Dar es Salaam, and I relocated to the bar for my first draft beer in months.  I had barely sat down before I was accosted by the man sitting to my right, Angus, a garrulous fourth-generation Kenyan white farmer with leathery, sun-damaged skin and a large chip on his shoulder regarding race, neocolonialism, and outside intervention in Africa. "I'm an African, born and raised," he affirmed, at least five times.  I barely had to contribute my half of the conversation, as Angus seemed only to need a receptacle into which to pour his various tirades: the "bloody" Chinese, the IMF, poaching.  The only way to save the black rhino, he confided, was to drill into their horns and insert powdered cyanide.  Then, when they were poached and the horns harvested and sold as aphrodisiacs on the Chinese black market... "Is that murder?" he asked, rhetorically, his voice redolent with the twang of Empire. "Well, you shouldn't have murdered our rhinos."

At some point he finally asked what I was doing on the continent, and I fearfully revealed that I was a Peace Corps volunteer.  To my surprise, he nodded.  "I know Peace Corps," he mused.  "You're all right.  About the only ones that are, really."  The UN, on the other hand-- and he was off again, venting his wrath.  I had noticed minutes earlier that a distinguished-looking man with a closely trimmed white goatee sitting on the other side of Angus had been trying to catch my eye. As Angus began sputtering (not without reason) about ineffective aid, he rolled his eyes dramatically, such an unexpected and juvenile response that I burst out laughing, before quickly stifling it.

The damage was done.  Angus frowned, followed my gaze over his shoulder, and turned.  Feeling responsible, I tried to include the other man in the conversation.  "You looked like you had something to add," I murmured, feeling like an instigator.

"Well, nothing really," he responded in French, "except that I work as a project manager for the UN."  Angus frowned again, evidently feeling left out, and Fergus-- as he introduced himself-- switched back to English.  He was Scottish, although after a lifetime of working in Francophone countries he spoke flawless French, and he and his wife had moved to Bordeaux a decade ago. "Scottish?" exclaimed Angus.  "So am I! Well, my family is, originally.  I'm African, fourth-generation Kenyan--" at which Fergus looked like he was restraining another eye roll.

The two, diametrically opposed examples of White Men In Africa, went at it like stags locking horns.  They used me as a sort of battleground, swapping war stories and trying to win more approval.  I should note that this had nothing to do with me in particular; I'm quite sure they would have done the same with any impressionable young idealist starting down the long road to expat-dom.  Angus showed off by speaking Swahili; Fergus showed off by speaking French.  Angus told a story about being pistol-whipped during a stickup by road bandits; Fergus advised me, if ever my house were broken into and I were held at gunpoint, to invite the robbers to sit down and have a beer. "In my case, they were Muslim, so I sent a kid out to buy sodas," he continued, grinning.  "We had a nice chat, I handed over the cash from my wallet, and they went on their way.  My neighbor tried to resist, and ended up duct-taped to a chair in his underwear!"

The two men continued to spar in this way, a thin veneer of polite conversation hiding barely-veiled criticisms of the other and "his kind": white farmers who still lived mentally in the age before Mau Mau, in Angus' case, and white development "experts" who stomped all over Africa with blithe self-assurance throwing money into corrupt, useless projects, in Fergus'.  I tried not to take anyone's side, as I could see the weaknesses of both positions; I will say, however, that I found Fergus to be ultimately more sympathetic.  He seemed to recognize the pitfalls of massively funded aid projects, and responded coolly to Angus' accusations of waste by saying that he had in fact recommended not funding projects in the past, if in his view there was not sufficient infrastructure or local leadership to carry them through to completion.  Angus, although a fun guy to have stand me a drink, seemed incapable of stepping back from his own position.  He was unbelievably opinionated, but it wasn't just that; the things he was saying made him seem antiquated, a relic, as though he had been preserved whole cloth from the era of Karen Blixen.

White expats in Africa are an odd breed.  Perpetually out of our element, we respond in odd ways, sometimes playing the feudal lord a la Angus, sometimes trying too hard to be integrated-- the Dr. Livingstone model-- and sometimes getting stuck in an intensely unhappy place, a state of affairs that just confuses me.  If you so deeply hate everything about the developing world, why stay here?  I've mentally asked myself this after many a conversation with French or American diplomats, businessmen, and even aid workers.

Take, for example, a woman I met my second day in Ethiopia.  I spent the night with a Peace Corps Volunteer in Addis Ababa, a wonderful and generous woman named Carmen.  We went out for dinner with another PCV and several young NGO- or research-affiliated expats, all of whom were funny, talkative, and interesting.  The next morning I took an early bus for Harar, the fourth most important city in Islam, located on the far eastern border of Ethiopia, near Somaliland.

The bus company I took, Sky Bus, was nothing short of luxurious.  There were perhaps ten passengers spread throughout the entire charter-sized bus, so I was able to sprawl my length over two plush seats.  There was a working television in the front of the bus, which alternated between a collection of best-of Lionel Messi clips and Ethiopian blockbusters.  There was working air conditioning.  To my astonishment, an hour into the trip, the ticket tout toured the aisle with a tea cart, dispensing breakfast rolls and hot, sweet tea.
Several rows behind me, I had noticed an older white woman with brassily dyed red hair and a Northern European accent.  When we stopped mid-morning for a pee and stretch break, she sidled up to me, evidently feeling we had a tribal connection.

"First time in Ethiopia?" she asked.  I nodded, opening my mouth to exclaim happily how nice everything was-- the cities were clean; the people were calm, quiet, and welcoming; the bus felt like I was pampering myself-- but before I could get any of this out, she said in a rush, "It's not easy, is it?"

I frowned, taken aback and unsure how to respond.  She went on: "Everything here is so nasty.  You have seen this bus?  You have seen how awful and dirty it is?"  I had seen nothing of the kind-- try a coaster in Cameroon, I thought-- but she was not to be stopped.  "I mean, they could not even stop for coffee!  The little cups of sweet coffee here are so good, but they give us this weak tea made from dirty water!  They don't know how to make anything nice!"

I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable, as most Ethiopians speak fairly fluent English, and we were not alone.  Not wanting to be implicated in her unreasonable complaints, I tried to change the subject.  "How long have you been living in Addis Ababa?"

"Twenty years," she responded, shocking me.  "I moved from the Netherlands to work here, got married, my husband died.  So I found another man, but he died, too."  She stared into the middle distance, speaking bitterly.  "They die like flies here. It's so hard, when you have let yourself get attached to something--" she broke off, then said abruptly, vehemently, "--nothing here is nice!"

She spoke like a victim of post-traumatic stress, and I longed to ask the obvious question: Why are you still here? Why not go back to the Netherlands? This seemed impertinent, however, so I guided the conversation towards travel.  She brightened considerably.

"I have heard Kenya is nice," she mused, that adjective seeming to nebulously encompass everything she felt her life in Ethiopia was missing. "I think by the end of this year I will move to Mombasa.  I have heard things are nice there.  I will be close to the sea-- yes, there I think I will like it."

I hated to burst her bubble, so I merely nodded, leaving her to her fantasy of beachfront life in Mombasa.  I have never been there, so perhaps she is right.  I have been to Nairobi, though, and if she thought Addis Ababa was a busy, dirty city, she was in for an unpleasant awakening.  If she couldn't be happy in Ethiopia, I thought, there was really no way she would find Kenya substantively different.

About a half an hour later, the bus stopped at a gas station to fuel up.  The tout jumped off, disappeared for a moment, and came back holding a steaming paper cup of hot, sweet coffee, which he carried back to the Dutch woman, evidently having heard her angered complaint about the tea.  It was a considerate and humble act, and I was touched, watching how he went out of his way to accommodate a deeply depressed stranger. At the end of the day, expats or host country nationals, we're all people, and we're all fellow-travelers, in this together.  

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