Trip Update: Walking Out Of Digital Africa
This winter I walked 400 miles up the Rift Valley of Ethiopia in the company of three grizzled Afar nomads, two taciturn camels and a barrel of powdered milk.
The milk was a tragedy.
Early on, I had asked a friend from Addis Ababa, via satellite phone, to resupply us with food — scarce vegetables in particular. But he was a thoroughly modern African, an urbanite. His idea of the outdoors was absorbed largely from TV commercials. So he brought us instead a 10-quart drum of powdered coffee creamer.
My nomad guides were livid. They used the seemingly inexhaustible milk can as a soccer ball. As a stool. As a drum. They broadcast tales of the city slicker's witlessness far and wide across the desert Rift — using cellphones clipped next to their dagger belts. The camelmen were, in fact, yapping on their mobile phones during much of the trek. It was like walking out of Africa with valley girls.
The world is changing blurrily fast. So I have decided to ratchet back the speed of my own reporting to try to see it in slow tableaux — to inch through the global stories of our day, big and small, at a more human pace.
Over the course of the next seven years, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of our species' first great diaspora from the mother continent to the uttermost end of the Earth, the southern tip of South America.
I'm calling this narrative journey the Out of Eden Walk. And along the way, I'll be traversing what is probably the greatest transformation in human consciousness since the invention of agriculture: the wiring of the world.
Today, about a third of humankind is interconnected through information technology, primarily via mobile devices, to the Web. By the time I plod onto a finish-line beach in Tierra del Fuego in 2020, that connectivity will be complete.
Walking through Ethiopia, I have witnessed the raw edges of this extraordinary digital revolution.
Our mini camel caravan veered as often toward remote villages with grumbling generators — " electronic oases" essential for charging the Afar nomads' mobile devices — as we did to real waterholes.
As a National Geographic fellow, I sometimes carry a bauble called a "dazzler," a gold-stamped letter of introduction on the organization's letterhead, intended to awe local functionaries into rendering assistance. (Or at least restrain them from blocking forward progress.)
On this trip, however, the rural officials I dealt with often had seen my published Web dispatches before I did; one even read my work to me from his Chinese-knockoff iPhone. Beribboned letters of introduction now seem as absurd as a pith helmet.
For 43 days my Afar friends and I rambled the Rift. We trudged across cloud-white salt pans. We marched over thorny plains. We pinballed down zigzag mountain trails to coastal Djibouti, where my walk abruptly stalled for a month.
I was waiting for a cargo ship to carry me across the pirate-infested Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. Day after day, I haunted the steamy docks and dim traders' offices, needling marine logisticians for tips. I drank gallons of sugary tea from shot glasses. I inhaled billows of cigarette smoke. I retold the same stories — leaving the loathed milk drum at the Djibouti border, perched on a rock. (For all I know, it's still there, unconsumed.)
But this was merely an antidote to loneliness. I could track any vessel in the world that I wished from my quiet, borrowed room — from my laptop.
He is receiving support from National Geographic, the Knight Foundation and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.