Category Archives: Africa

Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island


Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela (Image: Smithsonian Magazine)

On December 5, 2013 the world bid farewell to one of its modern-day heros: South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. His compelling life story, amazing capacity to forgive and reconcile, and exceptional leadership during a pivotal period in his country’s history made him an icon. His death gave all of us a moment to pause, mourn – and at the same time celebrate his achievements in the successful struggle to end apartheid. These words from his 1994 inaugural presidential address come to mind:

Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud. (…) The time for the healing of the wounds has come.
The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.
The time to build is upon us.

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Bright colors and dark past of Gorée Island


Obama on Goree Island

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama look out from the Door of No Return on Gorée Island (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barak Obama’s recent trip to Senegal, and especially his stop at Gorée Island, made me think back to my own visit there. Gorée is a tiny island in the Dakar harbor with painful history lurking beneath its charm of a colorful Mediterranean-like seaside village. From the 15th to the 19th century it was one of the slave-trading outposts on Africa’s west coast. The island was ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French and participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade for over three centuries until the mid-1840s, although academics differ on how many slaves actually passed through there.

Regardless of such debates, though, today the island remains a haunting place and a powerful symbol of humanity’s transgressions and, ultimately, redemption. President Obama visited with his wife and daughters last June. Moved Michelle Obama – whose ancestors were brought to America as slaves – penned an emotional essay based on her experience in Gorée. She wrote: Read the rest of this entry

Vanishing train to Bamako


Dakar train station (Image:

This time I’m writing about a trip I have not taken, I wish I could have taken, but unfortunately I’m not likely to be able to take any time soon. A train trip. Dakar, which I did have a chance to visit, is the Western terminus of the railroad built by the French almost a hundred years ago. The railroad connected Dakar with the city of Bamako, today the capital of Mali. The line opened in 1923 and linked the biggest cities in colonial French West Africa, connecting the Atlantic coast with the vast, mineral-rich hinterland along the Niger river. Nearly 800 miles across the arid land and baobab-studded savanna in between… Although once considered one of the most luxurious train rides in Africa, sadly its glory days are over. But even after its heyday, the trip must have been quite an experience and, vicariously, I feel I’ve had a taste of it through the writings of a Polish traveler and author Ryszard Kapuściński. In his great book The Shadow of the Sun he vividly describes a trip from Dakar to Bamako he took back in the 1960s, reflecting upon larger changes underway in Africa at that time. Read the rest of this entry

A different look at Mombasa


stereograph viewer

Stereograph viewer (Image:

Meet my latest addition: stereographs. A few weeks ago I found an intriguing stall in Washington’s Eastern Market and I was hooked after searching to my heart’s content through hundreds of amazing, century-old images from around the world. Before iPads, TV, and movie theaters there were stereographs. It’s a simple yet brilliant concept: a special camera took two images right next to each other, shifted slightly just the way the image that our two eyes see is shifted. The effect? When you look at a stereograph through special binoculars – a stereoscope – the image becomes 3D! Basic optics, magical result. In the late 19th and early 20th century stereographs were the craze. They were a way to see famous and exotic places come to life in a way that no ordinary photograph could create. They reigned supreme until the arrival of moving pictures but still today have a devoted crowd of enthusiasts – counting me. Read the rest of this entry

The sound of Nairobi


Sauti Sol

Sauti Sol (Image:

Listening to NPR this morning took me back to Kenya, musically speaking. When I was there last year I asked a friend to point me to popular music that young people listen to (other than Britney Spears and like =). Among the mix he recommended were songs by Sauti Sol, a great Afro-pop band that dazzled Kenya’s music scene in recent years. Bien-Aime Baraza, Delvin Mudigi, Willis Chimano, and Polycarp Otieno used to sing together in a high school gospel ensemble. In 2009, they released their debut album, Mwanzo, and became widely successful. They sing about everyday things – family, love, even education – but also about darker topics like police harassment. Their unique style reached receptive audiences in Kenya and beyond. Listen to this and you’ll know why: Read the rest of this entry

Where elephants roam


Amboseli Park gate

Amboseli National Park is a very special place on earth. It means “the place of water” in the Maasai tongue and indeed while the surrounding area is all red dust and acacia bushland the park stretches across vast, verdant swamps. They are fed underground by the runoff and snow melt from Amboseli’s imposing neighbor right across the Tanzanian border: majestic Mount Kilimanjaro. The view of the highest peak in Africa and the tallest free standing mountain in the world is in and of itself unforgettable reward for coming here. I am not much of a mountain climber but I have always dreamed of seeing Kilimanjaro. Ever since I read about this faraway and exotic land in children’s books, my distant dreams of Africa became morphed into this one iconic image: a snow-covered peak rising high above the savanna. You get the image, right? Now add to it elephants. Read the rest of this entry

A musical journey to Dakar


Senegalese sand painting

Before I ever thought I would visit Senegal I already felt I knew it because of one person: Youssou N’Dour. I don’t remember how I first came across his music but I instantly fell in love with it even though I don’t know Senegal’s Wolof language at all and French only in a cursory fashion. (Side note: if I were serious about learning French one day, I would want a Francophone African as a teacher – they actually annunciate =) He was born in Dakar’s Médina district, started performing at age 12, played with the band Étoile de Dakar, and eventually gained worldwide fame as one of the most celebrated African musicians. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard him in a hit duet with Neneh Cherry, 7 seconds.

N’Dour’s music captures the heart of Senegal: mbalax dance rhythms mix traditional griot (West African singer-storyteller) music and drumming with Western genres such as jazz, soul, and rock. Here is the best description of mbalax I’ve come across: “This is highly addictive, popular music with an exotic touch that makes you want to pack your bags and explore Senegal!” Read the rest of this entry

Noodkamp diary


South African shantytown (photo:

In another unexpected unearthing of an old travel piece, I found this diary entry I wrote ten years ago during a trip to South Africa that changed my life. It was my first time outside Europe and the U.S., a trip that was delightful, shocking, and inspiring at the same time. And it made me want more – see more, experience more, understand more… Here is one special evening from that trip.

June 4, 2001
Noodkamp, shantytown outside of Wellington, Western Cape, South Africa

As I watch the sun slowly bow its head behind the rugged roofs, another gust of penetrating breeze makes me shiver. Who thought it would be so chilly in Africa of all places?! I still didn’t quite become used to June being the middle of winter. There was not enough time, though, to think about the weather. I was there to record an oral history interview with someone who lived though the painful past of this colorful nation, so deeply torn apart and now awaiting brighter future. Read the rest of this entry