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Morality at the Margins

Morality at the Margins

Youth, Language, and Islam in Coastal Kenya
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Journey through Genocide

“In my language, your name means future,” I tell Abaka, my cab driver, staring at the dusty streets of N’Djamena through the cracks spread like a spider’s web across his four-door’s windshield.
He nods and curves his lips up weakly underneath his black, pencil-thin moustache. Dressed in flowing robes, like several of his fellow taxi drivers waiting for travellers in need of a lift, Abaka picked me up from the airport upon my landing, and brought me to a hotel he recommended, which I suspect netted him a commission.
Alone in standing above five storeys at the end of its dirt-road neighbourhood, the Chinese establishment Bei Fang looks over a relatively quiet block. Road traffic is scarce by day. By night, huddled masses of homeless gather around smaller buildings across the street.
The hotel boasts a courteous staff, but places me in a third-floor room with a frequently malfunctioning AC unit, and charges like a veritable Best Western or Marriott for levels of service comparable to a bad youth hostel. The Wi-Fi has no reach beyond the main floor, though there’s some comfort there as I can freely lounge around a large conference room that is clearly meant for some sort of business-class clientele but remains mostly vacant throughout my stay; the TV displays a handful of channels in Arabic only, a language I do not speak or understand; and the proximity of the toilet bowl to the unenclosed shower in my cramped bathroom means I have to remember to move the toilet paper out of the water’s range before deciding to freshen up.
It is better than the alternative: an online reservation I’d made at a hotel, which to this day I’m not sure exists, as calling it to confirm anything never yielded any results. I admit, though, that relying on a random stranger to safely bring me to a place to spend the night in the middle of a country where I did not know anyone was not the finest of contingency plans. In fact, during that original talk with Abaka, I fleetingly recall imagining that getting into the car of a stranger here was a fine way for a Westerner to get kidnapped. But the pickup area in front of the airport felt like an unlikely place to pull off such a stunt. Either that, or fatigue won out over paranoia.
He is a quiet fellow, Abaka. Our minimal, utilitarian conversations occur in French, and he does not say much other than thanks, good morning, good afternoon, and when am I picking you up next.
On one occasion, as he dropped me off back at the Bei Fang around noon, I attempted more small talk. “So I guess you’ll continue working now, huh?”
“It’s too hot to work this time of day,” he said drily. “I’m going to go take a nap until around four.”
Even if the heat hadn’t been so overwhelming, N’Djamena was not the kind of place where a foreigner like me could run errands by walking, or by hopping on a bus. I just wouldn’t be spending enough time there to become accustomed to its sprawled dirt roads.
And forget renting a car. I never asked Abaka about the aforementioned windshield, but five minutes spent on any street in the city would be enough for mostly anyone to fill in the blanks. Drivers honk incessantly, cut through lanes without signalling their intentions, and regularly miss each other by a few inches, as pedestrians do their best to stay out of the way. I’m reminded of my native Beirut, or Rome, or Yerevan just after the new millennium.
It’s not just the transportation in N’Djamena that can be overwhelming for a visitor. Taking pictures or filming is forbidden, unless you have explicit written permission by authorities. You could make some attempt at sneakiness about it, but the police/army-to-tourist ratio means you wouldn’t exactly be playing the odds.
None among the handful of other guests I see at the Bei Fang on evenings appear to be tourists. There’s certainly not a camera flash in sight, and the language barrier makes it difficult to befriend them.
Sitting down at a table at Bei Fang’s ground-floor reception hall, I banter with a handful of Egyptian guests while munching away at a dinner plate that has way too much meat and no greens on it at all. Of course, it’s not that the presence of the latter would make a difference anyway, since I have strict instructions from the travellers’ health clinic nurse not to eat vegetables I have not washed myself. To my surprise, the men ask the hotel’s manager, who seems eager to please her customers, to provide the reception hall’s wall-mounted flat-screen TV with access to a channel they’d really like to watch: the CBC.
It feels completely extraordinary, downright wonderful to me, that Africans are familiar with my employer, Canada’s public broadcaster, when I’ve sometimes found myself having to explain its existence in the country’s mostly francophone province of Quebec as the “English-language version of Radio-Canada.” On a couple of occasions, I’ve had to actually clarify I’m not from the news agency branch of a certain major Canadian bank with an acronym the CBC is just one letter shy of. Beaming with pride, I tell the Egyptians I work there back home. They’re delighted at first, then puzzled at finding out I don’t speak Arabic.
When our enterprising hotel staff successfully fulfills their request on the next evening, I see the root of the confusion: theirs is not the CBC at all, but the cbc, the Capital Broadcasting Center, an Egyptian entity that shares the three letters of its call sign, but not their case, and little else with the Canadian organization.

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Memoirs of a Muhindi

Memoirs of a Muhindi

Fleeing East Africa for the West
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And Home Was Kariakoo

And Home Was Kariakoo

A Memoir of East Africa
tagged : east, literary
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“Here Is Hell”

“Here Is Hell”

Canada's Engagement in Somalia
also available: Paperback Hardcover
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