Getting Started Abroad

You might be thinking, “I thought you were opening a freelance bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe. What are you doing in Nairobi, Kenya?”

It’s like this: The guy who first put the Harare bug in my ear — the representative of the Lawyers’ Committee on Human Rights who’d just returned from Harare — had a piece of advice for me: don’t fly straight to Harare. If you do, he said, you’ll have no idea what Africa is. Harare, he said, is an oasis of order and prosperity where you can drink the tap water, direct-dial an international call, buy milk in well-stocked stores and sleep with both eyes closed. Like Singapore (a place in which I’d lived and knew well), Harare is a great place to shower off your travels elsewhere in the region. If you fly straight there, he said, you’ll be getting a very skewed idea of the continent. 

Margaret and I were married in her hometown — Davis, California — on March 5, 1987. On March 6, we flew to London and then, after about a week of honeymoon touring on the sceptered isle, we flew not to Harare, but to Nairobi, 1,722 road miles away. (We didn’t yet know that African road miles are like dog years. Each is as exhausting as seven road miles almost anywhere else.) 

You read here about how we decided to start our freelance careers by setting up a freelance bureau in Harare, Zimbabwe, and here how we began our Africa sojourn with an act of patent journalistic fraud. 

Next morning, our first full day on the continent, we headed for the American embassy to replace my stolen documents. Nairobi seemed a pleasant enough city — not too choked with traffic. A lot of buildings were painted gleaming white, which perhaps made the city look cleaner than it was. 

One of the first things I remember seeing was a prim and erect, severe-looking woman in a raspberry skirt-and-jacket suit, marching along the sidewalk barefoot with her purse and a pair of raspberry-colored high heels neatly stacked atop her head. “Oh boy,” I remember thinking. “I’m going to love this.” Exotic! Like being back in Sumatra or Jahore Bahru! I was back out in the big world again! Margaret noticed that when she asked directions, people gave them in a manner more rural than urban. Instead of saying, “walk down Limuru Avenue and turn left on United Nations Boulevard, Mac” they said, “walk to that building there with the spinning sign on top and turn this way” with a hand crooked left. “At the blue building with the water pond in front, turn that way again.” Our feet were on the ground. This was real. We lived in Africa now. 

Lesson for newbies trying to launch a freelance career in a new place: Something is likely to go awry at the start, when you don’t yet know what you’re doing (like getting all your precious documents plucked from your pocket) Main thing to remember is: Don’t panic. And whatever you do, don’t call your parents. Figure it out on your own, and get into action at once. Get about replacing your passport, vaccination card, and other essential documents immediately. You never know when you’ll need them. It could be that you can’t do something as simple as checking into a hotel without your passport. It could also be, if you chosen a place of potential newsworthiness, that the Army will stage a coup the week you arrive and you’ll need your passport to get on a plane out. Shit happens. Be a boy scout and be prepared. 

Of equal importance to the practicalities, don’t let yourself be derailed by despair, as I almost was.* Shit happens. This is why you came to an unstable corner of the world — to see and report on life outside the incredibly privileged bubble in which most of us, and most of your readers, live. Keep telling yourself that you’ll get better at this shit. And above all, as you make the rounds reporting the theft to the hilariously ineffectual police and dealing with Embassy staff, take notes. You may not file a story on what happened to you, but you’ll sure as hell learn a lot that will serve you well later. 

* I neglected to tell you that after having my pocket picked doing the live-taped Q&A with the BBC, I’d gone back to the hotel and just about lost it. I threw open a window to let in the cacaphony of downtown Nairobi at night, and shouted at Margaret, “You want Africa? There it is!” I flopped down on the bed and moaned, “Can we really do this? Is this more than we can handle?” “Oh, stop,” she said coolly. And I did. But, of course, we, as a couple, did not. Africa, for us, had just begun.

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