As I stared in disbelief at the five erect wooden penises, Chris, my disabled tour guide at the Bombolulu Workshop, leaned forward on his crutches to take a closer look.
“That’s how many inches … about eight?”
Without answering, the wheelchair-ridden sculptor — one of more than 150 disabled artisans at Bombolulu who’s paid fair trade wages for making jewelry, textiles and wood carvings — confidently measured the phallus using his fingers, then dangled it between his crooked legs and grinned.
The penises were being carved to teach Masai men and women how to put on condoms to reduce the community’s HIV and AIDS infection rates, said Chris.
But when a Kenyan man crippled by an easily preventable disease like polio jokes with a phallus, which he’s made to feed his family and which will teach protection from HIV/AIDS to a pastoralist community dying by the thousands because of a lack of understanding, what can you say?
“This is Africa.”
On the streets of Nairobi you hear it all the time, uttered to vent frustration about the country’s dysfunction.
“This is Africa” or “TIA” for short.
Embedded within the continental slight, however, is an innate understanding that Africa is still recovering from a patchwork of colonialism and learning to create democracy in its aftermath.
It’s battling plights like HIV/AIDS, malaria, illiteracy and poverty without enough money, while calming xenophobic fears amongst diverse people corralled within arbitrary borders.
So, when Africans roll their eyes and say “TIA!” they both laugh about their problems and wear them.
But the view of Africa from outside tends toward ends of the spectrum rather than the murky middle.
Pessimists view Africa’s problems as self-created rather than influenced by outside forces; apologists think Africa’s qualms wear “made in the America” logos.
The two sides of this coin, both inaccurate, mean Africa is now the world’s only continental hinterland.
Stories unimaginable elsewhere are always true if they’re from Kampala, Monrovia or Kinshasa — from Africa!
But this Africa, our Africa, is built on noble savage romanticism.
Just as the idea that people still connected to the land somehow enjoy a life of poverty is insulting to First Nations people in the Yukon, the “real Africa” myth goads people here, too.
The irony is we should easily recognize Africa. Just think Europe, 200 years ago, with our unfair agricultural tariffs and multinational corporations spicing the mix.
Oh, and the people (mostly) aren’t white.
Like Europe, the age of migrations, empires, Crusades, enlightenment and national revolutions have all happened in Africa, only later.
So, like Europe struggling to define itself in the 1800s, today’s Africa sees 53 states, nearly one billion people and thousands of tribes and clans trying to make nations work despite mongrel mixes of religions, languages and histories.
Like Europeans did, many Africans are resisting by clinging to traditional identities out of fear of domination.
That’s what the Rwandan genocide and guerilla war in northern Uganda were about.
And that’s what the crises in Sudan, Chad and throughout Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea are still about.
Before we judge Africa, think what our opinion of Europe would be if CNN was around in 1914.
Even Kenya, a peaceful country surrounded by war is struggling to find what nation really means. Mazola, who works in the air force, summed up the dichotomy.
“Kenyans are proud. But as a country, we’re divided.”
There are 42 different tribes in Kenya.
Each has an opinion about the other thanks to a long history of ruling and being ruled by one another. So as the country heads toward an election in December, tribalism is what politics is about, not issues.
This is Africa.
And what of the African leaders who never seem to quit?
In his novel, A Man of the People, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe wrote: “A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors the whole time.”
African leaders who have suddenly become the elite are reluctant to let their newfound luxuries go.
Achebe wrote the line during the mass independence movement in Africa. But many will tell you it still holds true today.
What does all of this have to do with five wooden penises in Mombasa?
This is Africa.
You can’t fully laugh at it or wear its problems without understanding its story.
Former Yukon News reporter Tim Querengesser lives in Kenya.