Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape presents an alternative way of looking at sub-Saharan Africa: a perspective that counters the usual media images of disaster, disease, and mayhem. Far too often, Americans visiting Africa claim to meet only the sick, the murderous, and the starving. Or they meet sick, starving Africans murdering each other. In Hotel Africa, I showcase a different bunch of Africans—brainy Africans, caring Africans, hard-working Africans, dignified though damaged Africans—Africans who, under adverse conditions and not always successfully, attempt to build and sustain a decent life. In Hotel Africa, I also describe the complex set of incentives, penalties, constraints, and opportunities that give coherence and significance to the strivings of Africans, and to their failures and achievements. Hopefully by meeting these people, and by trying to understand the complex systems in which African lives are embedded, your understanding of Africa south of the Sahara will change and grow in ways that deepen your appreciation of this most misunderstood region.
The journey I wish to take you on, I began myself some dozen years ago. In 2000, I sat in a shack in the capital city of Burundi, smack in the heart of Africa, smack in the middle of an undeclared civil war, huddled together with a gang of irregular soldiers and their leader, a charismatic man in his 30s who I met with the assistance of Alexis Sinduhije, the leading journalist in Burundi. I sat with Alexis and these self-styled warriors, listening to them talk about mayhem from the heart of darkness, pillaging and killing their ethnic enemies, and their actions and motives—in short, doing what a foreign correspondent in Africa is supposed to do: reporting on human suffering, the people who inflict it, and its victims.
I spent three hours in a shack with these men, and at the end I didn’t understand anything about who they were, what they did, where they came from, or their world. I wasn’t even sure what they told me was true or whether that even mattered. So at the end of my carefully arranged encounter with young killers, I dined with Alexis Sinduhije and I told him, I don’t want to do this. Then I asked him a question—a question I would go on to ask many other Africans in many other places: Can you show me something beautiful?
He did. He took me to an art dealer on the outskirts of Bujumbura, and I gazed for the first time at sublime masks and statues made by traditional peoples of central Africa. And in a Bujumbura gripped by tensions brought on by disorderly insurgencies, Sinduhije one evening took me to a private home where Burundians happily swayed to the captivating songs of Brenda Fassie, the South African diva, until the clock approached the city’s 10 p.m. curfew.
Alas, I never returned to Burundi. But I remain fascinated by traditional African art and music. Everywhere I have traveled in Africa, I have looked for the beautiful in the everyday and for what works. At considerable cost to my standing with editors for the famous publications I once wrote for, I decided that better journalism could be done by reporting on what’s working in Africa—the functional, the sustainable, the dignified, the ordinary—than by reporting on the pathological extremes that dominate global media coverage of Africa and Africans. I decided that journalism ought not to diminish and demean Africans under the guise of promoting sympathy for them. Africans’ problems need not be exaggerated or invented to get Americans to care. At least not in my writings. Not by me.
My purpose is not to suggest that Africa is without problems or that outsiders cannot help Africans. But the near-exclusive focus on African pathologies—and the media’s emphasis on the “pornography of pain”—presents only part of Africa’s reality, and not the most interesting or significant part either. In Hotel Africa, while I aim to explain forces that act on African affairs in often unrecognized ways, I also seek to celebrate concrete, commonplace African realities—realities that invite us to understand and engage Africa and Africans more deeply, and on a far more equal basis than we achieve by approaching Africans as objects of sympathy or assistance.