The sun is shining these days. Like going to the sink and turning off the spigot, the rainy season came to an abrupt end. Suddenly, the Africa of my childhood visions, the story books, the classroom, the television has come into existence. Hot and sunny is the image of Africa , but my first two months in Addis was anything but. No one talked of the rainy season at 7000 feet. It was cold.
This new-found knowledge leads me down the road of inquiry. Often, it is not until you have first-hand experience that you can say you have really learned anything. I think this is the case when learning about people and places. We can read the newspapers, watch the evening news, read the latest books and read the magazine articles. But, what are we really learning? How many of the story writers actually are on the ground when writing the stories?
How many of them are writing about the African bush from the comforts of modern hotels in capital cities? How many of the stories being told are from an African’s vantage point? How much of the dangers and travesties of living and traveling in Africa are told by people that have experienced these dangers and travesties? How many of those stories come third and fourth hand?
I write these questions with only three months of living in . As you read this I am visiting the holy Islamic town of Harar in eastern Ethiopia . I will be on my way this afternoon to the town of Jijiga near the border with Somalia . Tomorrow I will visit a UNHCR camp for Somali refugees. This is an area that many would call off limits to travel. My wife and I have thoroughly researched traveling to the region. We have reports from partners who are working on the ground in Jijiga. They tell us that it is safe, that we will be fine. But if you were to ask local Ethiopians in Addis, they would warn you against traveling to the area. Part of it is legitimate concern, but for them, unfortunately, it has a little bit to do with racism as well.
Still, we will be mindful of where we are. I can only hope that this column does not prove to be hubris.
Many of you back home seem very concerned about our safety. While we completely understand where you are coming from and are most appreciative of your thoughts and prayers (and want them to continue!), we would like for you to know that we are doing well here. We are healthy. We are living amongst a people that are most respectful of us and are far more peaceful than your neighbors.
I am taking this column space to address this notion of fear and perceived danger on the part of people of the West towards Africa . I am certain that if you were to come with a mind as wide open as the Ethiopian countryside, you would quickly find that there is little to fear and so much to look forward to. Pre-arrival dangers would be seen as worrying too much and soon give way to smiles and laughter. This is a beautiful land with inhabitants that want people to come and see their home, a home they are most proud of, as they should be. They are welcoming and always offer a warm sincere greeting. They will go out of their way to show their respect for you, to the point that you will feel uncomfortable with the attention given to you.
While I am no expert on Africa, I can tell you that (and for that matter) provides little for any traveler to be afraid of. It is a place of endless discoveries, most of which will take place not in front of you, but inside of you.
It is the internal journey that really leads the travel-addicted to walk out their front doors. Landscapes and faces teach more than any book or news magazine could ever do. There is a quest for truth through experiential first-hand learning.
If you are going to learn of the African sun, you are going to have to stand under it. If you are going to learn about ’s rich history, you are going to go walk through its rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. If you are going to learn about cold-weather Africa, you are going to trek in the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia or live in Addis during the rainy season.
Lucky for you, and lucky for me, we can do this in relatively little danger or fear. And when we do, we will be able to write our own stories, stories that will allow us to differentiate between the realities and the non-realities being crafted in the newsrooms and classrooms across America .
(written 9 October 2005)