Wednesday, March 9, 2011

So Near and Yet So Far

I'm back on US soil after a 16-day safari in Tanzania, much of it spent camping with Masai and Hadza tribespeople. But more about that later.
This morning, my first in the US since enduring about 19 hours of flying torture at the hands of the amateur-night-at-the-opera airline known as KLM, I walked 15 minutes down to the nearest newstand and picked up the NY Times, the FT, and the local paper, all of which featured headline news from Africa. Not just the stories of Libya and Egypt, but also the implications of all the changes shaking that continent--from terrorism to oil prices. All of a sudden a continent that most Americans don't care much about and know even less about (even as China races to lock up rare and valuable minerals and raw materials) is dominating the world's attention.
But what I'm thinking about is slightly different: it's the relationship of proximity and news.
For 16 days I was roughly in the same neighborhood as the events that were shaking the world.
Every morning I'd rumble out of my tent around 6:15 and walk up the gentle hill to the campsite and the first fire of the day. I'd pour myself a cup of cowboy coffee and then find a place to stand and watch the sun rise over a landscape of stunning beauty and simplicity. Each morning the moon would gradually surrender another slice; the Southern Cross would still be visible as I sipped my coffee and then all of a sudden it wouldn't be. The birds would start slowly and quietly to greet the new day and before long they'd be loud and constant in their songs.
But what made the morning were the reports from what my fellow campers and I came to call "Radio Pallangyo"--named for Pallangyo, the trusted right-hand man of Daudi Peterson, the remarkable leader of Dorobo Tours who dazzled us with his easy command of facts both natural (he's the #2 ranked birder in Tanzania) and political (he's been working steadily to safeguard the rights and dignity of Tanzania's badly treated tribal minorities).
Pallangyo would come out of his tent and stroll easily to the campfire, greeting the early morning risers with Swahili words of good morning, pour his own cup of coffee. And then, after he was settled, we'd ask him for the latest news from "Radio Pallangyo."
Because as near as we were to the events in Africa, we were off the grid when it came to news.
All we had was Pallangyo's lone plastic radio, tuned every morning to the BBC World Report and Voice of America--when he could get a signal.
And so like small town Americans from another time and another era, we'd sit around the campfire and ask Radio Pallangyo for a recitation: what had he heard that morning? What was going on in Libya? Would Qaddafi hold on? Who was the military backing? Had the dictator actually threatened to kill his own people? Was it possible: first he was blaming Al Qaeda for fomenting revolution, then attacking the West with the same charge!
Every morning Radio Pallangyo gave us the headlines and set the tone for the talk around the campfire.
We were in Africa, Africa was on fire, but we were off the grid and all we knew came from a tiny plastic radio that sat in one tent and gave us the news we craved before we set off to hike the green hills of Africa, spotting wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and countless birds.
There we were, on the front lines of global change, so near and yet so far.

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