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November 26, 2009

Are you tired of Africa? (Don't be)

I was explaining to the woman at the cell phone company yesterday that I needed to close my account because I was moving back to the United States.

"Why?" she asked. "Are you tired of Kenya?"

The lady at the bank, the man at the ISP -- all had asked whether I'd finally become sick of this place I've called home for more than four years. I always said no, of course not. When I arrived it was a lark, and I was a young journalist who wanted an adventure. I didn't imagine I'd love it, because I was too naive to realize that Kenya and Africa are like most places in the world -- they have their ways of charming newcomers who allow themselves to be charmed.

Yet the woman had a point. The fact is, I am a little tired, if not of Kenya then of a job that demands frequent travel in less-than-business-class conditions, and of the mental exercise of surveying news sites every day only to find a litany of negative developments in places where I've traveled and made friends, and grown to care about.

I am sorry to say that I find the continent in many ways a grimmer place than it was when I arrived in 2005. The crises in Sudan, Somalia and Congo haven't gotten any better, there are new troubles in places like Guinea, and the rigged elections in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe dashed hopes and cost too many lives. (I'll never get used to hearing someone say that so-and-so "died in the election.") The rich are getting richer, the poor more desperate, the climate more unpredictable and the population growing faster than any politician seems to reckon.

So it might seem an inopportune time for a journalist to pack up and leave. We will always need more reporters in Africa, not fewer. But foreign correspondents have shelf lives in their postings, and for me it's time for a new challenge, which I hope to find in Washington, D.C., where I start a new job with McClatchy next week.

In my final days in Kenya, I said farewell to three friends whose lives sum up what's plaguing Africa and the possibilities that still beckon this most beautiful, bewildering continent.

I had lunch with Bashiir, who runs a guesthouse in Mogadishu where I stayed in 2007 when I went to cover the aftermath of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. It was Bashiir who called me one terrible morning a few months later with the news that Mahad, our stringer in Mogadishu, had been assassinated on his way to work. Bashiir had remained in Somalia but come to Nairobi on business, and when we met by the entrance to one of the city's plush shopping malls, he was sporting Ray-Bans, cargo pants and a neatly trimmed goatee. We hugged warmly and he walked with his hand clasped on my back.

He's moved his guesthouse to a spot opposite the Mogadishu airport, out of the line of insurgent fire, where he doesn't fear mortars crashing into his guests as they sip his chef's cappuccinos (made with Nescafe, so they're better thought of as "Mogaccinos"). He's also branched out into security work, and has become a popular fixer for foreign journalists who dare enter Somalia, setting up trips across the country.

Over pizzas, he said he didn't think the violence would abate over the next year. He was going to Italy for a medical checkup; the stress was getting to him. He has enough friends in Kenya and abroad who'd be willing to offer him a job and a place to live. But he's devoted himself to his country, and to making sure journalists who want to come work there have a safe place to stay and fresh fish to dine on at night -- a taste of the good life that Somalia knew when Bashiir was a much younger man.


I said an emotional goodbye to Evans, the widower of the woman who came twice a week to clean my apartment for nearly four years, before she died earlier this year. Joyce had HIV, something she and Evans never told anyone, fearful of the stigma like so many Kenyans. When she became seriously ill in March, while I was away on a long reporting trip, her body was failing in so many ways that only one thing could be the cause. She continued to deny her status to me, until one day I told her to think about her children.

Shortly after she died we learned that both their boys, ages 8 and 4, were also HIV-positive. The news fell on Evans like a brick; Joyce's mother, Judy, nearly collapsed on the floor of my kitchen. The 4-year-old was sick enough that he needed to start on antiretrovirals immediately. Evans and Judy had a million questions, few of which I could answer, but Lea Toto, the wonderful, USAID-supported children's clinic where the boys are now patients sent people to the family home to talk with them privately.

When I saw them on Sunday, the boys looked bright and happy. The younger one has responded well to the drugs, developing a fierce appetite, and I struggled to lift him. The family is still worried about the future without Joyce around to support the kids. They still don't say "HIV" or "AIDS" aloud, so we talk in euphemisms like "status," "health," "situation." But slowly, they are telling close relatives. In their own way, they're confronting a disease that cost them one beloved family member but have decided need not cost another.


I was stunned by Moses's apartment. It was on the top floor of a new complex with a fleet of SUVs in the resident parking lot, most carrying UN or diplomatic license plates. His was a split-level, with balconies all around, and you could fit fully four of my apartments inside his. "The woman," he said, using that Maasai tic whereby men don't refer to their wives by name, "she loves me too much. She said, 'You are a very good man.'"

Moses, in fact, is one of the best. He grew up a villager several hours outside Nairobi, in Maasai country, but was a natural leader. Some friends from Slovenia started a safari company and hired him as a driver, and it wasn't long before Moses developed a clientele of his own. Last year he struck off on his own, and his company, Maasai Adventures, as he tells it, is the first independent tour company in the Masai Mara that's owned by a son of the soil. It should be an inspiration to a nation of young businessmen that they can run in an industry that's so far dominated by white Kenyans, Indians and foreigners.

The night of my going-away party, on Saturday, Moses brought his wife, Evelyn, and two friends. I gave him a painting to decorate the acres of walls in his place, nearly all of which were bare; he'd brought me a beaded watch strap I'd coveted when we'd visited his village. His obscure village days are over; the day I left, a documentary film crew from Canada was due in town to tape a one-hour special on him, part of a series on African lives before next year's World Cup.

"One hour?" I laughed. "That's a lot of Moses."

"I have many things to say," he said.


That brings me to the other question that everyone has asked: Is McClatchy replacing you? The answer is no, at least not right now. Media companies have to justify every scarce dollar they spend these days, and with the Obama administration waging two wars there's no question where we must put our resources for now.

So our Africa bureau is going dark. Other American newspapers, too, are closing bureaus on the continent or leaving postings unfilled. It is the unfortunate reality of the moment. But while nothing can quite replace independent, unbiased reporting by professional journalists, we must be honest that there's no shortage of news out of Africa. Just glance at the blogroll to the right, or head over to Twitter, where a vibrant community of Africans and foreigners are reporting and debating everything from economics to soccer results to ICC cases.

My final stories will be published in the coming weeks. But I'm hanging up the blog for now, with thanks to all of you for reading and commenting and creating a community I never thought possible. I'll continue to follow and occasiona lly write about African affairs from Washington, with fresh eyes focused on slightly different things. While I'm no longer "on the ground," I'm not out of the loop.

So don't be tired of Kenya, or of Africa; I'm certainly not.


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Adam West

I thoroughly enjoyed my trips to Africa visiting Rwanda, Angola, Kenya, SA, and Zimbabwe. I was given the opportunity of having a meeting with former VP Joshua Nkomo at the State House in Aug 97. Most of my time (one year) spent was in Zimbabwe and Nairobi, Kenya. I met many friends during my stay in Harare. Enjoyed the food, some fine restaurants ie., Italian, Greek, German, Porteguese. I also enjoyed the travels, wild animals etc.

I would like to return to Zimbabwe in the future. With the current President I'll have to wait.

Texas ExPat

I've enjoyed your work my friend. Good luck in the future..


I can relate to many of the things you have said in your last blog. I often debate the answer to the same question I have invariably been posed each time I mention we will be leaving this coming April. I know I will miss Kenya and Africa terribly once I am gone but all good things come to an end. Thanks for humbly covering stories from this part of the world.


I'm sad that with your new posting, this blog will surely come to an end. I wish I'd been able to stop by more often...Thanks

Brian Obama

I have to say, it is a pity that we are going to lose the great resource you have been, in my attempt in understanding what is happening in Kenya and Africa as a whole. The blog had been insightful and a good unbiased read, filling many evenings whenever I feel the need to be transported back home. Hopefully McClatchy will not purge the content. All the best with your new endeavors.

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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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