Monday, May 21, 2007

Learn Faith

Someone asked what I thought of Ethiopia. I said, 'Well, I ... like it?' He asked what I meant. 'I mean as in if I could figure out a way to go back, I would love to. I want to live ... it.'

He was incredulous. He said, surely, I must have gotten a jaded view of the country. Life is not as rosy when one doesn't waltz into Addis Ababa with dollars.

I protested that it's not that there is nobody who's barely making ends meet, or probably that there're too many people doing exactly that. What I am taken by is that there's change that has come about from the people, in the people, by the people, and a lot that can still be done, of which some I think I can do, find challenging and find fulfilling. Can't say as much of my current job. Of course figuring out how to make the transition is not going to be easy, but hey, like wise man once put it to me, if you don't have a goal, you can't win, right?

We went back and forth and finally he said let's agree to disagree and we dropped the issue.

But it bothered me. How can one tell if one's deluding oneself, or just delusional. There's optimistic and there's naive. How do you draw a line without actually crashing? (OK, this is beginning to sound like a Sarah Jessica Parker Sex & the City rant-o-monologue)

Then a few days ago an email tumbled into my mailbox and it cleared my mind. I think it's worth sharing.

Africa and Win-A-Trip

When I visited University of North Carolina recently, I ran into lots of students who were desperate to meet me to bolster their chances of winning the "win-a-trip" contest. But I also met one student, Loren, who didn't apply, and she gave me this thoughtful note explaining why. It's provocative, so let me share it in full:

Friday marked the deadline to enter The New York Times columnist Nick Kristof's second annual "Win a Trip with Nick Kristof" contest. Open to students currently enrolled at any American college or university, as well as middle and high school teachers, the contest offers one student and one teacher an all expenses-paid trip through Africa with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to gather stories on the impoverished continent.

The winners will not simply be explorers, but also reporters. The prize includes the chance - more accurately the expectation - to detail the experience on a blog on NYTimes.com.

Because I am currently a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I qualify to enter this competition, and have many reasons to do so. I enjoy writing, which would potentially place me at a slight advantage since Kristof acknowledges a preference for applicants with journalism experience. I maintain a persistent interest in Africa - I met my boyfriend at an event to raise aware about the genocide currently raging in the Darfur region of the Sudan. And I'm broke and have never been to Joseph Conrad's "dark continent," so a free trip to a strange land is appealing. Yet, I refuse to apply. I think the way Kristof has cast this trip is a disservice to Africa. Because I believe it the wrong way to motivate action, I am opting out.
Kristof insists on telling the story of a failing Africa when instead he could report on its ability to overcome. On the competition's webpage Kristof has posted a letter to potential applicants that provides this explanation: "Frankly, I'm hoping that you'll be changed when you see a boy dying of malaria because his parents couldn't afford a $5 mosquito net, or when you talk to a smart girl who is at the top of her class but is forced to drop out of school because she can't afford a school uniform."

Apparently, Kristof wants to find two Americans who he has decided do not understand how bad things really are in Africa, and rid them of their ignorance. It could work. Last year's student witnessed the death of a woman during childbirth despite the fact that both Kristof and his traveling companion donated blood in an attempt to save her. Though the doctor promised to help the young woman, he apparently ducked out the back door as she died. That was Kristof's story of Cameroon, a West African nation with tremendous ecological diversity and a per-capita GDP higher than that of most other African countries.

No doubt, such an experience would educate a student about a poverty that is more cruel and creative than our worst fears, and likely foster inspired journalism. But the story of Africa in turmoil is the African narrative that many Americans - and certainly those who read The New York Times - already know. It is virtually the only type of reporting that Western news outlets broadcast about the continent. Every American student who has to listen to National Public Radio in the car when Dad picks her up from soccer practice, or has had to read The Economist for a school assignment, or has read in a church newsletter about a local youth group's spring break trip to a rural African village knows that people in Africa are hurting. Maybe we haven't smelled an understaffed health clinic that cares for HIV-positive orphans, or walked through rows of coffee trees with a farmer whose young son was beaten into serving in a youth militia in a civil war between tribal groups whose names we can't pronounce and whose agendas we can't keep straight. But we know they are poor, and that Africa will break your American heart if its contaminated water doesn't kill you first.

Even those Americans who avoid the news have heard stories of Africa in crisis. Bono has told you. Or Angelina Jolie. Or George Clooney. We have seen something about helping to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa by purchasing a red T-shirt at The Gap. Or we've caught a sound bite about Bill Gates turning his attention to sick kids in Africa.

Americans don't need any more stories of a dying Africa. Instead, we should learn of a living one. Kristof and his winners should investigate how it is that Botswana had the highest per-capita growth of any country in the world for the last 30 years of the twenty-first century. Report on the recent completion of the West Africa Gas Pipeline that delivers cheaper, cleaner energy to parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Tell us about investment opportunities in Nigeria's burgeoning capital markets.

Sadly, it's impossible to report on Africa's successes without relaying its tragedies. Virtually every African victory is somehow also a story of malnourishment and malaria, misogyny and malevolence. That's important because Africa's horrors are massive and crushing, and demand attention. I agree with Pope John Paul II, who said "a society will be judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members." Clearly Africa will be the judgment of our global community.

Kristof knows this, of course, and I am certain he means well when he writes that his original purpose for the contest was because he thought that "plenty of young people [who] tune out a fuddy-duddy like myself might be more engaged by a fellow-student encountering African poverty for the first time." But they would also be excited to encounter African hope, something equally unknown to most Americans, students or otherwise.

So I'm asking Kristof to refine his summer travel itinerary to include a tour of a thriving organic farm owned and operated by a local Ethiopian cooperative. And the Ugandan health clinics that are reducing the number of AIDS cases despite a continuing guerilla war. And the wonderful "PlayPumps" scattered throughout the continent that provide safe drinking water via a pump system powered by children as they play on a playground. Brilliant idea. And something many people don't know about.
Africa needs a lot of things. It needs money and aid workers, vaccines and functioning governments. Some of those things can be provided by outside donors, and other can't. But universally, Africa needs us to believe in it. And that is something we have to be taught.
Source : Seth's Blog / NYTimes, N Kristof's Blog (subscription required)

3 comments:

Nolawi said...

Kristof and his winners should investigate how it is that Botswana had the highest per-capita growth of any country in the world for the last 30 years of the twenty-first century.


Dude if you read this...you would have realized that its only been six years since the twenty first century started... gin regardless the person was talking about the growth rate over the last three decades...which apparently is suppose to be better than even china...

what the person failed to mention was that while it had positive growth... the income inequality has not been reduced it worse... regardless i am sure its still better for the country as a whole... anyway I am not saying that the guy you spoke to right to be a pessimist but its right to be realist

Yemi said...

Tobian.

Go.

But make sure you leave your American glasses back in the US. Let Ethiopia open your eyes, show herself to you.

Go.

But make sure you are ready to embrace your experience regardless of what it maybe. Know that there will be many times you would wonder about your decision to move.

Go.

But be prepared to see things in a new way. Challenge yourself. Be open. Don't be lazy about examining things from an entirely new perspective.

Go.

But be ready to feel a spectrum of emotions that range from the darkest of sadness and frustration to an elation like no other. Don't let the sadness and frustration taint, take over, and own your experience that will in the end become an enduring memory of a lifetime.

Talk to people.

Ask questions.

Always listen. Sometimes poetry falls off people’s mouths.

You will find a complicated country that is full of contrasts, conflicts, contradictions. And if you look, if you know how to find it, if you let yourself be taken, you will be possessed by the beauty that is Ethiopia.

I speak from personal experience.

Tobian said...

Nolawi, possibly. Never been big on econ. My personal experience has been that every Motswana I've met in the US has headed back home. A quick search on reverse brain drain returned this. Brief reference but picked this one as it relates to Eth.

Also being a realist, I hope, doesn't preclude initiative. I think that was her point.

Yemi, thank you. Great worlds worth keeping in mind any time, any place.