My 13 year-old son has a social studies project that is due the Tuesday after the Memorial Day weekend.
I learn of this while planning a long bicycle ride, straddled in my cycling attire under the vagrant pieces of sun I managed to find.
He has been asked to produce a powerpoint presentation detailing a travel itinerary for an imaginary trip he is to take to four African countries: Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Madagascar. He is to provide maps of each country; specific locations he is planning to visit in each country, with explanations on why he is planning to visit each location; he is to provide climate, food, social customs, and political attributes of each nation; he is to collect photographs of each location and a bibliography of travel and country guides accessed.
In other words, this is a large-scale project, involving significant research hours.
On Sunday afternoon, I am given access to the work that has been completed to date. The itinerary he is planning to submit goes something like this:
Day One: 9am - land in Nigeria. 930am - have breakfast. 1030am - go to swimming pool. 1230pm - have lunch. 2pm - sleep off jet lag. And so on.
There are no maps or photographs or graphics of any kind. I am presented with a series of slides, garish yellow lettering on black background panels; a series of itineraries broken out by numbered days, each one more routine than the next. One slide features a random list of foods and features indented bullet points on an array of cultural customs that span a narrow spectrum from eye contact to handshakes.
I digest this itinerary. It is obvious that Memorial Day will be shot.
“Why did you choose the yellow lettering on the black background,” I ask.
“I wanted it to have a cool look.”
“So, you sacrificed the content and the research and the time you had before the Tuesday deadline for the look and feel of the presentation?”
“Yes. I also have these notes.”
He displays a weathered stack of loose note paper with penciled prose tucked in wild scribbles between the measured lines.
I have never paid any meaningful attention to Africa. It is a continent that I have associated with slavery, with tribal savagery, with Ebola, with vicious and gory machete deaths, with merciless rapes and clitoral hackings, with bleary-eyed Malarial victims, with the dead gaze of armed children, with the long tick of AIDS, with the vapid faces of countless orphans, with the fly-covered swollen bellies of the starving, with ivory poaching, with drone strikes against northern desert foes, with near-casual genocide, and with collections of wandering zoo animals thrown upon the landscape.
The travel advisories and warnings accompany the travel guides, and the colorful flags smear pride upon the poverty; a blue chameleon clings to a branch somewhere in Madagascar, and a pair of elephants are adorned before a Kenyan sunset. A bomb goes off in Nairobi; the Simien Mountains rise like grey fins over Ethiopia’s Gonder region; it is the rainy season everywhere in August; the Muslims and Christians remain wary just north of Lagos. Rice and plantains and curry are abundant.
I come away from Africa with material. And we herd this material and pound it into content. We are sculptors that are not dirtied, because we are remote. We pull and pluck from computer networks, flipping through foreign cultures thousands of years in the shaping and through conflicts equally long and unevenly resolved. It is not our fight. It is their fight.
We burn the day and sleep in the ashes. Done.