Sunday, August 03, 2008

On Not Discussing Africa

“So there we are, cleaning the gutter, and Mary looks in the drainpipe, and guess what?” Bob leans forward. The sweat on his forehead matches the condensation on his margarita glass. It is 8 pm, a muggy summer evening in Austin, and the sky above the deck is still bright.
“You’ll really never believe it!” Mary stands behind his chair.
“What?” Brenda asks.
“It was our cat! She had come back!”
“No!” Paul says. His bite-size carrot stands erect in the hummus bowl.
“She had come back?! Ah, I bet you were just…” Brenda searches the deck floor for the word.
“Just flummoxed!” Mary says. “What was it, four weeks, five weeks later?
Bob nods. “We were really surprised.”
All pause, relishing the significance. Minutes before, I had told them of my Guinean village, how my friends get skinny each rainy season, when last year’s harvest has been consumed, but this year’s crop is just being planted, and Ramadan keeps them from eating all day anyway. They had paused with the same solemnity.
Luckily, I didn’t need people to be curious about Africa. After a year of unpaid therapy from Volunteers in Cape Verde, I didn’t have the urge to pour my heart out about Guinea anymore. Cape Verde, to which I would be returning shortly, didn’t elicit the same nostalgia in me that begets long and painful monologues...
..which was fortunate, given my stateside reception: “How was Africa?” people typically asked. “Good,” I replied, and we moved on to gas prices, i-phones, the fist bump, and other topics currently transfixing the American psyche.
I honestly didn’t judge: it’s human nature to be uncurious about things beyond your worldview, I reasoned, things about which you know so little that it’s hard to formulate good questions. Americans, with its economic might, vast territory and autonomous entertainment industry, may be a bit more prone to it. But for that very reason, it's even harder to condemn. And besides, I was thrilled to talk about the iphone myself (you can use it to turn on your itunes!).
So when a few curious guests approached me at a homecoming party and requested a speech, I declined.
“If people are interested, they will ask me privately.”
“But will have to repeat yourself!” they protested.
“Trust me, I won’t,” I smiled. “Since most aren’t interested and since I don’t need to talk about it, it just doesn't make sense.”
Then someone asked what I would pursue after Peace Corps.
“Because I think the first step in human rights and economic development is getting more attention to suffering people. The media does a great job at spurring awareness, and that is what leads to government and NGO projects, and ultimately change.”
I started. I’ve just stated why I needed to give the speech, I thought. I was so proud of myself for not needing attention that I was actually undermining an opportunity to get Africa attention.
“So I’m just going to talk a little bit about what I’ve been doing in Guinea and Cape Verde and then I’ll let you ask me questions if you have any.”
To my surprise, with a bit of background information, people asked great questions. The guests I had imagined least curious thanked me sincerely as they left. Perhaps ignorance and not lack of curiousity was the real reason for the apparent disinterest; even the iphone had to be hyped a bit before we cared about it.