Other than in Hollywood blockbusters, you seldom witness a real-life situation in which a man wakes to find existence as he knew it irretrievably altered, the hot porridge of destiny bubbling thickly in his bowl. At this precise moment he is compelled to choose: sup heartily at his bowl, or gawk blankly as it cools and, eventually, is rendered inedible? If the Taco Bell eating contests in which I engaged until quite recently attest to anything, ’tis that THIS GRINGO CAN EAT. I don’t mean to brag, but my figurative mitt trembleth not when, poised with tarnished spoon, it digs profoundly into the metaphorical porridge.
So in the spirit of my Quixotic quests, when offered a month-long assignment to Uganda last week, I accepted. And for solid measure on the back end of the jaunt, I’ve tacked on four days in Kigali, Rwanda, that I might visit the genocide museum and go gorilla-trekking on the city’s highland outskirts. As if my virgin African foray could grow no more exciting, this morning I found out the return flight will stop for nearly a day in the Ethiopian capital, hitting the tarmac at Bole International Airport at 6 AM; a 3-mile taxi ride gets you to city center, and the flight to Dubai doesn’t depart until late in the day, so I’ll be checking out Addis Ababa for a few hours in the interim. I will add that I received formal confirmation of this entire trip just yesterday, when I awoke to find the day like most others preceding it. In the last 24 hours, I’ve been scrambling to get airline tickets, travel orders, and essential administrative minutiae under wraps to depart Rio this coming Thursday evening.
I never thought I’d visit Africa, much less work in it for any period of time. I suppose that in my line of work, anything is possible. Like everyone else doing this job, so too did I sign a worldwide availability clause as condition of employment. Yet I assumed I’d spend the bulk of my career in Latin America, with Africa remaining what it has been to me heretofore: an unquantifiable and intangible entity, a vast expanse of loosely-configured states with a jungle bigger than the continental U.S., Muslims in the north, and somewhere in the realm of 3,000 languages spoken in bursts, the colonial-era ones boasting the greatest dispersion. Up until this trip became a concrete reality, I felt no more connected to the African continent than anyone else from my Ohio-born, white-bred, corn-fed family.
But when I stop and think of it, hints of Africa have abounded throughout my life. It is sadly not until now, however, that I have taken a moment to ponder what they foreshadowed of my own future. My father deployed to Somalia in 1992-93. I was almost sent to Africa for my Peace Corps assignment (though El Salvador won out, and the jury’s still in deliberation on how good a thing this was for the Pulgarcito de las Americas). I’ve had both African-American and continental African friends over the years, one of which was a Sudanese man who painted in vibrant hues for me the history of his nation and the suffering it has endured in its own long march to independence. Occasionally, I’d read books about the continent, chiefly the late Nelson Mandela’s Long March to Freedom and the history of Stephen Biko and the Black Consciousness movement he represented before his beating death by South African constables. Major motion pictures like Hotel Rwanda were impossible to miss, and there’s the laundry list of random documentaries, like Vice Magazine’s recent one on the naked warlord generals of Liberia.
So it’s safe to say, without fear of sounding cliche or dramatic, the signs and symbols of Africa have never been far from my head and heart. In two days when I disembark the plane in Kampala, Uganda, they’ll round the long corner from a fantasy I dared not even imagine when conjuring myself from bed yesterday… To an objective reality that will invariably shift the sands under my feet and, I think, alter the very course of my life.