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Africa: romanticism for the strong. Where unlimited hospitality mixes with widespread inefficiency

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 1986

Harare, Zimbabwe

``You're writing travel pieces?'' inquired the British-trained Zimbabwean university lecturer. ``It must be nice to spend so much time touring Africa. A sort of year-long holiday, eh?'' I paused. Somehow, I never quite thought of myself as writing travel pieces or touring Africa on holiday. Far too much time is spent repairing one's vehicle; trying to find petrol; dealing with bureaucracies; or waiting at borders.

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But then, traversing the continent from Khartoum to Cape Town by Land Rover must seem romantic and sort of like a holiday to many people. As an American journalist who has lived and traveled most of his life abroad, reporting an ``African journey'' and researching a book has proven to be one of the most fascinating experiences so far.

Yet, more than one year and eight countries later, and with a few more months to go, it is also proving to be one of the most frustrating.

Crossing the badlands of Somalia accompanied by armed soldiers in case of bandits, or camping out in the open bush of southern Tanzania with lions lurking nearby may at times, as some suggest, reflect the romanticism of Isak Dinesen's ``Out of Africa.'' Yet trying to fathom the contemporary realities of this vast and extraordinarily diverse continent takes patience and concentration.

The more one sees of Africa, the less one understands. One finds oneself only dabbling -- scraping the surface. Africa requires total immersion. And, even if that were possible, it would not be enough.

Sitting in front of a log fire one long evening in the Malawi highlands, a European resident and former police officer reflected: ``I've lived in Africa almost all my life. You think you know it all. But then something happens and you realize you know nothing.''

Journalistically, spending two or three months in each country may seem an eternity as one travels south. Yet, one wonders how it was ever possible to write stories based on three days here or a week there -- if one is honest. Rare is the outsider, capable of fully grasping the African way of life.

``We just have to accept that Africans see things differently than in your country,'' noted Willy Musarurwa, former editor of the Sunday Mail in Harare, Zimbabwe, while discussing the role of government and news media in his country and others. Nevertheless, one tries to understand, to absorb as much as possible.

To an extent, the foreign reporter who has seen other parts of Africa has a certain advantage. Many Africans, whether black or white, often have little knowledge of their neighbors. Government efforts to restrict or filter information both at home and abroad are often the cause of such a lack of knowledge. Rarely is it a lack of interest or curiosity on the part of the Africans.

As a traveler, one is constantly questioned by villagers. Farmers, students, even police at road blocks question the newcomer about conditions throughout the continent. Sometimes they even ask about their own country: ``What's it like in country? How are we doing?''

Overall, however, one is confronting a society caught between two basic value systems: the European and the African. If one looks at either, in order to judge the other, one gets nowhere. Yet, not to judge at all invites chaos. A reporter should not stand by if governments, be they Ethiopian or South African, Tanzanian, or Malawian, abuse and repress their people.

On this trip, I have met with comparatively few politicians, the idea being to see as much of each nation and its people as possible: farmers, primary schoolteachers, urban laborers, nomads, missionarys, an astute woman ambassador representing her muslim country at the UN, and many others.