Monday, October 10, 2005

The Last Tribe of Desert Elephants in Gao

In a previous post, I introduce my experience in Africa by situating myself at an Internet cafe in Bamako. But then I use the words "edge", "far off", "bush", and "elephants", more typical terms associated with Africa in Western media. In Ghana, where I worked as a Geekcorps volunteer in 2001, my co-worker Kwasi at Africa Online (an ISP) asked me if I had thought before coming that they all lived in trees, were starving, and infected with HIV. I remember looking around that sixth-floor office at all the potbellies, grown round from generous helpings of fufu and goat stew. Everybody was heatedly IM’ing and a pastor’s sermon blared from a radio. Eddie, a member of the Ewe royalty with sparkling eyes, gave me rides home sometimes in his VW Jetta. Mike was teaching himself how to create database-driven sites and was reading the latest O’Reilly book on Active Server Pages.

Upon arrival in Accra, I had gone to the UNAIDS website and looked up the reported rate of HIV in Ghana, low for Africa, around 3%. But I realized I had personally encountered more HIV-positive people at home in San Francisco. What was the percentage infected at home, and why hadn’t I looked up that number?

When Americans ask about my time in Ghana, they often ask me what wild animals I saw there. I did eat grasscutter, a large rat-like creature. I didn't have time to go to the Accra Zoo. I did take a three-week vacation at the end of my volunteer stint and travel by plane, bus, jeep, and foot to get to a place where a few wild elephants remained. After all, I knew people would assume I had seen elephants if I told them I had been to Africa, and I needed to tell that story.

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