Friday, December 30, 2016

a new orientation

My  first trip to Kenya, I never knew where I was. I guess this often happens when you visit a new city, when you haven't walked or driven those streets, haven't seen that tree or billboard or building before. But this disorientation felt particular. There was a way of getting from one place to another that felt unfamiliar in a whole new way. On my first day there, we drove from Nairobi to a small Maasai village near the border of Tanzania, and the second half of the trip wasn't guided by a road that showed us the way forward. Our drivers made their own way (or, remembered the one from before) over dusty ground and through thorny acacia trees. Then, there it was: a building, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

I thought of that feeling of disorientation, then sudden arrival, as I read The Bright Continent. A book about a new way of looking at Africa, its author opens by using maps and orientation as an illustration for how we would journey together through this book and its stories. Expect a Google map of the continent and you'll miss the important landmarks that are really the way to get from A to B. Be guided by those on the ground, and you'll find your way.

This book is well-written and well-researched. And, as someone who is Nigerian and has lived in the West as well, the author is able to straddle the continental culture divide and pull you along with her to explore stories of people and organizations in Africa and help you see them in a new light. Her main point is that, if we look from a formality-bias -- expecting Africa to conform to formal institutions and ways of doing things in the West -- we will miss the informal and customary traditions and innovations that are helping communities and individuals thrive.

I found this book at a used bookstore earlier this fall, and oh how I needed it. It started taking me apart, in the smallest ways, and readied me to be completely disoriented when I arrive in Kenya in a little over a month. I like maps, I like plans, I formality. But, now, I'm a little more ready to look in new ways.

Friends -- this is it. My last book completed this year, my last blog post on books I've read in 2016. Phew.

(photo: Nairobi streets)

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