Letter From Kenya

Knoxville, as a reminder of what is good

Introducing Letters Home: a semi-regular column written by Knoxville expats in far-off lands. Know someone who's moved away and has some reflections about Knoxville or their new home to impart to us? Have them send their letters to editor@metropulse.com.

I have to say, I look at Knoxville much differently now than when I did 20 or so years ago when I was a teenager with a poor attitude.

By the time I looked at joining the U.S. Air Force at 19, just as Desert Storm was kicking off, I couldn't wait to get out of Knoxville. It felt like The Great Escape to me at the time and Kuwait or Saudi Arabia seemed just fine with me as potential destinations (though I only made it as far as Germany and Turkey).

Since then, I have become something of a gypsy journalist, going where the work is, which in the last few years has meant places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Kenya, India, and Nepal, among others.

The daily grind of reporting, writing, and shooting in these places is often overshadowed—in my own personal experience—by the differences I see compared to where I grew up. This is at the crux of why I do what I do: I like to see, touch, and taste things totally contrary to where I was reared.

And where I grew up—West Knoxville—is fairly cushy. In contrast, roughly two-thirds of the world's population has it far worse than the poorest Americans do, and I don't need to go into all of the human-index statistics to prove this point here.

But I will—only to a generalized, nationwide extent. We have access to clean, potable water. We have a decent education system and a massive, well-paved roads system. We have sanitation and sewage systems and electricity. Life expectancy for children under five is high. We have access to health care. And we don't have to walk to our corner open-air butcher to buy hanging meat covered in flies. (And we don't have to use water and our hand to clean up our backsides, as is the custom with numerous cultures around the world.)

Granted, living in America's ghettos is probably no cup of tea. But try telling that to the inhabitants of the slums in Africa or Asia, who bathe everyday in fecal-contaminated water, for example. And sure, America's education and health-care systems could use some improvements. But let me also tell you, the smog and pollution here is nothing compared to the larger capitals of Asia and Africa.

And while I was in the Knoxville area recently for a well-deserved break, it dawned on me, rather late in my 37 years, that this is a special kind of place even within the U.S. Knoxville has pulled itself out of the 20th century. The downtown area seems revitalized. There is a $500,000 skateboarding park—though the cops keep a close eye on it. (Some things will never change.) The University of Tennessee's property keeps modernizing and expanding (and encroaching on Fort Sanders). And new building projects are rapidly changing the landscape of the entire city. This is all new to me and every time I am able to come to Knoxville for a visit I notice these changes.

Yet I seem to work in places that are stuck in a time several centuries past, where livestock such as donkeys, camels, cattle, and goats sustain an often meager existence for both humans and animals alike.

But technology is catching up to those places.

For example, Somalia has one of cheapest mobile-phone industries on the African continent and, for being the only anarchic nation in the world, that is no small feat. Street-side cafes in the capitals of Kenya and Ethiopia, among the top quality coffee-producing countries in the world, boast wireless Internet to lure customers in with their laptops. Their atmospheres, with the constant cacophony of horns, foreign languages and hawkers, could never be mimicked by Starbucks, no matter how hard the corporate Goliath might try.

One thing that might be the same as Knoxville is traffic. Though it would be difficult to draw real parallels, it is sufficient to say that spending a lot of time ensnarled in traffic jams is a universal annoyance and time drain for the average East Tennessean and East African urbanite alike.

On an odd note, in regard to something I encountered in Somalia that doesn't relate to this column but does relate to Knoxville—a government official I met one time while covering the recent Ethiopian military campaign there was sporting a handgun with "Knoxville, Tenn." engraved on the left side of the gun. When I tried to impart to him the strange significance, he couldn't relate and simply said something to the effect of, "Yes. It is a good gun." I suspected it was left behind by a U.S. soldier during our nation's failed mission there in the mid 1990s.

So you see it seems there are reminders out there for me, just waiting to let me know Knoxville is still here, and not some distant mirage playing tricks on my mind while oppressive heat and suppressive gunfire linger in the air.

I am reminded time and again that it is a wonderful thing to be born American. And better yet, it is the Scruffy City and my mother's residency here—along with my old friends, mentors, and professors—that keep calling me back. Maybe one day I'll listen and settle here for good; but until that time, I'm a Knoxville-ite at large, and happier for it.

Les Neuhaus lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is based as a freelance photojournalist. Prior to this, he worked as a print journalist for news outlets like Stars and Stripes newspaper, The Associated Press news-wire agency and the United Nations humanitarian-news agency, IRIN. He got his start as an unpaid intern at Metro Pulse after graduating from UT in political science. His work can be viewed at lesneuhaus.com.