Around the world - without a moan!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The world is Afrocentric. Pick up any map of this planet and, most of the time, the biggest thing we see smack dab in the middle is our continent, Africa. The world revolves around us! There we have the Americas off to the left, Eurasia above, the antipodes to the right, and Antarctica below.

Small wonder then that we’re a bunch of moaners – us Africans, I mean. We incessantly whinge about the way the rest of the world interacts with our continent. We complain about the fact that we have the highest levels of poverty. We resent the fact that we do not have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

Why? Well, we developed an exaggerated sense of our importance because world maps unconsciously teach everyone that Africa is at the centre of the universe. We now are upset when the world doesn’t accord us concomitant respect.

I’m now convinced that the way world maps are drawn limits our thinking. We forget too easily that our planet is a geoid (or oblate spheroid if you prefer) with an equatorial bulge and a polar flattening, and that the shortest distance between two points might well be over the north or south poles.

This is why most travel agents, when asked to book a ticket between Johannesburg and the US, will put you on a painful 17 hour haul to New York or Washington and then on a connecting domestic flight to your final destination. Travel agents look at airline route maps, and don’t think in 3D.

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I generally route to the US via the UK. A leisurely overnight flight to London, a morning stroll around the city, lunch with friends, then catch a connecting flight directly to Chicago or Denver or Boston or wherever to land there late afternoon.

This time, I found myself needing to be in San Francisco and the thought came to mind that I was travelling almost exactly to the opposite side of the planet from Johannesburg. So why not route eastward instead of west?

A quick check of flight schedules confirmed my thinking. Johannesburg to Hong Kong takes about as long as Johannesburg to London, and Hong Kong to San Francisco takes about as long as London to San Francisco. And the cost of flying via Hong Kong is roughly the same as flying via London.

So I was set to book my ticket when the thought struck me – why not do both east and west?

Some 100 years ago, Jules Verne sent his fictional creations Phileas Fogg and sidekick Passepartout on a journey “Around the world in 80 days”.

I flew Johannesburg to Hong Kong, Hong Kong to San Francisco, and San Francisco to London. As I write these words, I am 11 kilometres high in the sky above Batna, Algeria, on a direct heading over Kano, Nigeria. By the time I land in Johannesburg in about seven and a half hours, I will have travelled around the world in 10 days.

It’s given me a great sense of perspective. The world suddenly feels a lot more intimate to me. I found time to break bread and share wine with dear friends old and new in Hong Kong and Cupertino and London. And our conversation inevitably swung around to shared values of what will make the world a better place for our children and theirs thereafter.

Chris Barnard, Nelson Mandela, Mark Shuttleworth, and Navi Pillay among others matter to the world outside because they have directly or indirectly touched the lives of most people on the planet for the better. Why not follow their example? It’s easy. All we have to do is lose the Afrocentric focus, look at what matters to the world at large, embrace those values, and flourish.

It’s a small world after all…