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Why Didn’t the Leopard Eat Tom Friedman?

At an internet café in Tegucigalpa the other day, I came across Thomas Friedman’s mid-August column in the New York Times “The Land of ‘No Service,’” which I assumed would be about a poorly functioning McDonald’s in one of the post-Soviet states. But no! It was about a Friedman safari in Botswana.
Perched on his dateline,  “Chief’s Island, Botswana”, Friedman begins:

“If you travel long enough and far enough — like by jet to Johannesburg, by prop plane to northern Botswana and then by bush plane deep into the Okavango Delta — you can still find it. It is that special place that on medieval maps would have been shaded black and labeled: ‘Here there be Dragons!’ But in the postmodern age, it is the place where my BlackBerry, my wireless laptop and even my satellite phone all gave me the same message: ‘No Service.’”

Thus, while non-African parts of the world have progressed from being medieval to being postmodern, the only progress Africa has made is in the label assigned to it by non-Africa. Leaving aside the fact that it is also possible to experience a lack of cell phone service in places not requiring a bush plane to reach, such as the United States, Friedman indicates that in addition to dabbling in African affairs he has decided to dabble in creative literary techniques, as well:

“Yes, Dorothy, somewhere over the rainbow, there is still a ‘Land of No Service’ — where the only ‘webs’ are made by spiders, where the only ‘net’ is the one wrapped around your bed to keep out mosquitoes, where the only ‘ring tones’ at dawn are the scream of African fish eagles and the bark of baboons, where the only GPS belongs to the lioness instinctively measuring the distance between herself and the antelope she hopes will be her next meal, and where ‘connectivity’ refers only to the intricate food chain linking predators and prey that sustains this remarkable ecosystem.”

Friedman is promptly forced to reform his ecstasy over remarkable ecosystems and concede that he arrived to Botswana “with enough devices to stay just a teensy-weensy connected to e-mail,” with the adverbial use of the word “teensy-weensy” constituting yet another creative literary technique. The staff of the camp Friedman is staying at in the Okavango Delta, on the other hand, “take the wilderness seriously,” and have limited their technological connectivity to a radio, prompting Friedman to draw the following conclusion:

“So, like it or not, coming here forces you to think about the blessings and curses of ‘connectivity.’ ‘No Service’ is something travelers from the developed world now pay for in order to escape modernity, with its ball and chain of e-mail. For much of Africa, though, ‘No Service’ is a curse — because without more connectivity, its people can’t escape poverty.”

The issue is raised of how Friedman has suddenly arrived at a conclusion regarding people’s poverty when he has been discussing African fish eagles and baboons, and when the only person he has thus far mentioned by name is Dorothy. Preferring questions to explanations for the moment, Friedman asks whether there can be a balance between the the Land of No Service on the one hand and poverty-curing connectivity on the other, lest developed travelers suffering from over-connectedness have their escape from modernity impeded by Africans escaping poverty.

Charles Darwin joins the list of human beings mentioned by name when Friedman announces that “the first thing you notice in the Land of No Service is how quickly your hearing, smell and eyesight improve in an act of instant Darwinian evolution,” and attributes the improvements to the lack of iPods and computer screens. When he goes on to explain that “[i]n the wild, the difference between hearing and seeing with acuity is the difference between survival and extinction for the animals and the difference between a rewarding experience and a missed opportunity for photographers and guides,” we are forced to ponder the evolution of Friedman’s job title as New York Times foreign affairs columnist.
Missed opportunities in matters of natural selection at the New York Times are further highlighted through the failure to edit the following paragraph:

“It was our guide spotting a half-eaten antelope lodged high in a tree that drew our attention to its predator, a leopard, calmly licking her paws nearby and then yawning from her midday meal. The cat’s stomach was heaving up and down, still digesting her prey. The leopard had suffocated the antelope — you could still see the marks on its neck — and then dragged it up the tree, holding it in her jaws, and placed the kill perfectly in the V between two branches. And there the antelope dangled, head on one side, dainty legs on the other, with half her midsection eaten away. The rest would be tomorrow’s leopard lunch, stored high above where the hyenas could not get it.”

A seamless transition is then made from the leopard’s lunch to the desperate need for African connectivity outside the ecotourism industry. For evidence of “what a huge difference cellphones and Internet access can make to people in Africa,” Friedman turns to Eric Cantor of Grameen Foundation’s Application Laboratory in Uganda, as Friedman’s own expertise is apparently limited to explaining what a huge difference cell phones and the internet can make among Iranians opposed to the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Cantor explains to Friedman that an African banana farmer with a mobile phone has more options than simply waiting for buyers to turn up at his farm, and that technologically-connected “[t]eenagers too shy to ask parents about causes and symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases can research them privately and improve their own health outcomes.” We are thus relieved to learn that African teenagers might one day become like teenagers in the rest of the world, who devote most of their cell phone minutes to STD research.

In the penultimate paragraph of his article, Friedman announces that Botswana “luckily has enough diamonds to be able to turn 40 percent of its land into nature preserves” and that its “urban connectivity with the global diamond exchanges enables it to maintain ‘No Service’ in its wilderness.” Instead of addressing the inherent luck of other countries with a lot of diamonds such as Sierra Leone, Friedman chooses to inject his safari with the politics of Zimbabwe, which “has become virtually a country of ‘No Service’ after decades of dictatorship by Robert Mugabe, and, as a result, both its people and wildlife are endangered species.” The New York Times foreign affairs columnist might have achieved even greater metaphorical coherence by incorporating Mugabe into his description of the leopard in the tree.

Belén Fernández can be reached at belengarciabernal@gmail.com.

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Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon.

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