Stories That Matter, By LUKE GLOWACKI, The New York Times
The prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is missing, reported seriously ill and in a European hospital. I only caught wind of it as I boarded a plane to Addis Ababa and a Google alert came up in my e-mail. The official government spokesman painted a rosier picture: After 21 years of tireless service, doctors have advised him to rest for a few weeks to recover from health complications caused by overwork. We are assured everything is proceeding normally.
Here in Ethiopia we click on links that don’t work, not that there is any news. One Ethiopian newspaper, Feteh, had its daily distribution of 30,000 issues halted late last month because the government asserted it was a security threat. Using Skype can get you 15 years in prison.
I get another e-mail, this time from a colleague at Harvard that says, “It seems like things are really heating up there. I hope that’s not too close to where you are.” I check Google again: 30,000 refugees cross the border into Kenya because of ethnic fighting. I bring the news to breakfast with a few other local researchers. No one here seems to have heard anything about it and it’s only a few hundred kilometers away.
It’s the same with the U.S. Air Force base a half-day’s drive from here. I meet a man at the bus station there and he tells me he has many American friends. “How? Where?” I ask. “Oh, there are so many American soldiers here. They are making a base at the airport.” Only months later did an American publication break the news about foreign bases being used to launch drones.
I ask the nomadic pastoralists with whom I work if they know what is happening with the prime minister, or about the fighting near Moyale. No one has heard a word of it.
The rest of the world hears about these things through newspapers, the Internet and television stations. But most of rural sub-Saharan Africa is in an information vacuum. The world could be going up in smoke and we wouldn’t know it. In these rural reaches, you can’t buy newspapers. The only ones you find are months old, from faraway Middle Eastern countries in languages no one here can read, used by the store clerk to wrap your pain killers or soap.
But there are some things you do hear about that never make it to the interconnected world. Here information travels by word of mouth. It may take days or months, and what happens just a few hundred kilometers away may be of little interest if it reaches here at all.
Presidential elections, the Olympics, the Arab Spring are unheard of. Instead, the events of everyday life travel far and wide: a distant cousin’s cow had twin calves, an NGO is building a water pump nearby, the Omo River has flooded. These things matter because they affect daily life. There is more milk, there may be clean water, planting will begin when the river recedes.
In the world of newspapers, you may never hear about the measles outbreak that infects hundreds, or the time thousands of pastoralists fled into the mountains when Kenyan tribesmen crossed the empty desert border. You hear about how much is spent on foreign aid but you don’t hear about the celebrations that occur when it arrives, just as you don’t hear when the truck that carries it breaks and is not repaired for months.
You don’t hear how the children cry at night on a handful of grain a day. You hear a politician say vaccines cause autism but you don’t hear the gurgling of a young boy with polio as he tries to move a body no longer his own.
You hear about Matt Damon bringing clean water to Africa, but you don’t hear how an entire migration route changes when the only waterhole in a 40-kilometer radius collapses. You don’t hear how entire villages spring to life all over the country, hundreds of white-robed people dancing in the dirt streets at dawn, when the 56-day Lenten fast ends.
You don’t hear how at night when the customers leave, the boys who trade their youth serving beer in some no-name bar in some no-name town turn the music up and dance with one another, a few minutes of found innocence in a childhood of labor.
The stories you don’t hear have no less life than the stories you do. It’s just that there is no one here to tell them.
Luke Glowacki, an evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard University, is currently working with pastoralists in the South Omo Valley, Ethiopia.