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Africa, tech and danger: A few questions for writer Joshua Ellis

Joshua Ellis (portrait by Jeferson Applegate)
Joshua Ellis (portrait by Jeferson Applegate)

If you're reading this on CityLife's blog, you probably already know who Joshua Ellis is. Not only has he written for this paper plenty of times, about technology, marginal people, music, the onrushing future and more, he's a constant, often-astringent presence in the city's media and social-media zeitgeist.

Now he wants to go to Africa. He's trying to crowdfund a trip there, to look at the way Africans are using technology to, as he says in his pitch video on, "rewrite their cultures." All over the continent, he says, Africans who don't have much technical infrastructure are doing innovative things with the kind of unsexy low tech that a venture capitalist wouldn't bother with -- SMS, for example. As an "amateur futurist," he's drawn to this sort of ground-level adaptivity, and wants to write a book about it, a gonzo travelogue in the style of his previous ebook, An American Vampire in Juarez. Thus the crowdfunding. He's trying to raise $10,000, and, as of this writing, has 19 days left to do it.

Why Africa? And, by way of teasing out any subtext, how much of this project is about going to Africa, and how much is about getting out of Vegas?

Because it’s not obvious. Most of us think of Africa in terms of clichés — that everything from Cairo to Cape Town is just one giant refugee camp full of starving children and blood diamonds, or that all Africans are a pack of simpletons who just need us to send them money and food so they can get back to dancing joyfully around the village square and riding around on goddamn elephants and banging on drums. It’s condescending and paternalistic and, frankly, racist as hell, but that’s what the media tells us, because it’s the easy story to tell.

But there’s another story too: the story of smart, determined people who are using technology to try and improve their cities and towns and countries, to build communications and power infrastructures, to create new economies that don’t require a handout from the developed world. And that’s the story I want to try and tell, because I think it’s much more interesting.

You’re right, though: I’ll use any excuse to get out of Vegas and go get lost in the world. But I’m going to be leaving Vegas in late November, when the weather’s just getting nice and chilly, and flying to the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s the middle of summer. Because I’m a masochistic idiot.

What route do you plan to take, and how did you choose it? What do you hope to see?

I’m going to be traveling to and around two hubs: Lagos, Nigeria, on the west coast, and Nairobi, Kenya, near the east coast. Both cities have thriving tech startup scenes, and I can make excursions to other cities and into rural areas from them. There’s at least one side trip I’m trying to arrange that I can’t talk about publicly yet, because it’s incredibly stupid and dangerous, and also because I’m not even sure I can pull it off. But if I do, it will be amazing.

I’ll be meeting up with geeks and maker types, coders and hardware nerds and inventors, and talking to them, as well as simply wandering around and observing everything, and thinking about how people live in these places, and how technology can make their lives better. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to see, which is why I have to go. I hope to see things I’m not expecting.

Are there any literary models for the book you plan to write?

I kind of want to avoid writing an earnest pop economics or sociology book. I love activist writers like Naomi Klein, but that’s not what I do. I think this will be more of a travelogue — a narrative of my experience rather than an essay on technology or a bunch of charts and facts. I always loved Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, which was nominally about the Aborigines of Australia but was really a meditation on mysticism and nomadism. And, of course, I’m very influenced by Hunter Thompson/Tom Wolfe-style gonzo journalism, which is really just a particularly baroque kind of literary nonfiction.

How are you preparing now?

I’m making contacts in the places I plan to visit, and making up a rough itinerary. There’s a lot to do — I have to get visas and vaccinations and book flights and hotels. I’m reading up on the history of the cities I’m staying in, because you can’t understand any place if you don’t understand its history. Once I’ve got the funding, I can focus more on specific day-by-day planning, because I’ll know what I can and can’t afford to do, depending on how much I raise.

Are you worried about the dangers

Not really. I’m aware of the risks — there are a lot of militant Islamist groups in Nigeria, and traveling anywhere outside the developed world is always little bit of a crapshoot. I’m going to be intentionally doing some fairly risky stuff that most people wouldn’t really be comfortable doing. And let’s face it, I’m a 6-foot-3 chubby white dude with ear piercings and a shaved head — I’m not exactly inconspicuous in sub-Saharan Africa. If somebody wants to grab me to try and ransom me or take my head off with a hacksaw as some kind of halfwit political statement, and put it up on YouTube, I’m not exactly going to get my Jason Bourne on. I’m pretty well fucked.

But as I discovered when I went to Juarez to write a book about getting my teeth fixed, the world is usually a safer place than people think it is. As long as I don’t behave like a colossal asshole, I ought to be fine.

And more to the point, once you’ve committed to doing something dangerous, there’s no sense in worrying anymore, right? You just do it, and try to do your job and tell the story the best you can and not end up in a landfill, or as a trophy on some fucking jihadi’s mantle. Like Hunter said: Buy the ticket, take the ride.