A Thousand Sounds of Africa

The stonecutters are at work again outside my window - steadily tap, tap, tapping away at the newest edifice going up next door. All day long the chisels beat out an irregular rhythm, as Nairobi workmen smooth jagged boulders into giant building blocks, to piece together a sturdy wall.

As the structure rises, the artisans roll their large, hand-chiseled bricks up wooden planks, as did the laborers who built the pyramids how many thousands of years ago. I half expect to look up from my desk one day and find they've built a sphinx.

The comforting echo of the stonecutters was a pleasant surprise when I settled into this corner of the world nearly four years ago. I never thought a construction site could offer a sound soothing to the ear. It's the kind of everyday, ambient noise I guess I'll miss when I leave Africa next month for the more exalted world of power tools.

As a radio correspondent, a big part of my job has been to try to select and capture sounds that truly represent this varied continent. Africa is full of sounds. Its contemporary din isn't just the racket of age-old tools, although the swish of the machete, shovel, and hoe are often the only farm implements you'll hear.

Nor is it simply the now-clichd sounds of Africa you'll find on the evening TV news: the ugly rattle of machine-gun fire, the whoops of teenage militia men, or the wails of emaciated children as they're herded beneath the flapping plastic sheets of hastily built refugee camps.

Africa is a sort of "fourth world." The continent hosts a record 6.7 million refugees, and at any given time, about a dozen conflicts rage. One out of 3 Africans is estimated to be chronically underfed. Half the population lives in grim poverty, on less than $1 a day.

But the continent's cacophony isn't just a cry of poverty and strife. Its voices encompass a collision of cultures, languages, and religions from 52 countries and more than 2,000 ethnic groups, from a populace as varied as the passengers jammed inside the matatus - the dilapidated minivans that rocket down Nairobi's potholed roads every rush hour, horns blaring, ferrying residents. Like the matatus, Africa hurtles into the future at tire-screeching, passenger-jolting speed.

Certain sounds from my Africa experience haunt me. Etched in my audio diary are long evenings in the summer of 1994, when Rwanda's capital still trembled in the throes of genocide, when it wasn't clear which band of grim-faced young fighters would win control of the shattered city.

A colleague and I sought shelter in the rubble of a demolished and abandoned Kigali rectory. We crunched across the broken glass and cleared a space on a floor littered with crumpled Scriptures and abandoned belongings.

THE electricity had long since been cut, and the nights were starless. We'd eventually snuff out our candles, leaving the rooms in a darkness so deep you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. But the sounds were vivid: Rebel soldiers listened to the crackle of their enemy's radio, the drone of the announcer's voice urging the city's Hutus to fill the half-empty graves with Tutsis.

But those haunting sounds are not the definitive clamor of Africa. Only weeks before, I had recorded the most heartening news I gathered here: the worldly-wise testimony of elderly women in Soweto, South Africa, who had lined up to vote for the first time in their lives. The matrons standing along the packed mud of those long-neglected back streets gushed, they rocked with laughter. They, as one of the women told me, "were going to eat the same buttered bread now as the white folk."

Those voices reverberated with something I seldom heard on the continent, the sound of leadership. Who wouldn't be moved by the uproar as a joyful Nelson Mandela danced across a Johannesburg stage the night of his election victory? Who wouldn't smile at the sound of a ragtag line of rowdy children chasing behind Walter Sisulu, as the elderly African National Congress deputy president walked to the voting booth at a delicate pace? Couldn't anyone discern something new, hours later, when Foreign Minister Pik Botha, a pillar of the apartheid regime that had sent Mr. Sisulu to prison for 26 years, knocked on the door of the octogenarian? "It is the happiest day of my life," Sisulu told me in his raspy voice. "I have struggled, and I am able to say we have reached our destination."

These are my personal memories of sounds long ago beamed into the stratosphere. Some, I don't know which, point to the direction of tomorrow's Africa.

How much of the world will hear the voices of Africa's next generation? Many of the international media aren't tuning in to the continent these days, even though it is home for one-tenth of the world's population. Western-based news organizations are cutting back their presence here, while policymakers and Africans complain that many Americans seem intent on marching to the beat of a new isolationism.

WHAT explains the indifference? Perhaps Americans were repulsed when angry Somalis dragged fallen American soldiers through Mogadishu streets in 1994. Or were they repelled when United Nations peacekeepers retreated in Rwanda, before they could prevent genocide?

These days the roar of a major Western military intervention - by the United States or the UN - seems unlikely. Much of the world has turned its back on this continent that sometimes seems to be only a distant murmur.

But each day, Africa's chorus rises again, in a blissful mix of early-morning sounds at sunrise, floating across a rolling savannah that is the cradle of humankind. Then follow sounds of the confused continent that beat all day long, in shouts of protest and struggle, cries of a confused continent clinging to hope.

Africa's voice isn't drifting away from the rest of humanity. A sound I have no words to explain is the clear sweet song of a troop of mud-splattered southern Sudanese boys I heard years back, who didn't know if they'd be marched off to war. They sang to their mothers far away behind the looming mountains.

Listen. Not all the sounds here are as comforting as the steady rhythm of hammers and chisels, as stone gives way to an artisan's touch. But the everyday clamor of Africa is not the sound of a lost continent. It's the sound of people desperate to find their way.

*The writer, a correspondent for Monitor Radio, received a one-year fellowship in broadcast journalism at the University of Michigan.

The original, extended version of this essay is available on the e-Monitor at: http://www.csmonitor.com

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