Author Interview

Carl William Henn

the author of My Two Centuries in Africa

Carl William Henn is the author of a travelogue-memoir My Two Centuries in Africa. He is a global health professional. He spent 40 years working on health programs in Africa. And He lived in North Africa, then West, Southern, East and Central Africa. Carl is originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, in the American Midwest.

He began his public health career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. He returned to the U.S. and acquired a master’s degree in public health to equip himself with the skills to be more helpful in Africa.

Carl retired early during the pandemic to write his memoir, My Two Centuries, and then undertook a national book tour on his own to the lower 48 states, traveling 30,00 miles in six months in a mini-campervan with his dog, Mr. Bones, to share the book with independent bookstores across America.

TBE: What inspired you to write “My Two Centuries in Africa,” and what message did you hope to convey to your readers?

Carl William Henn: There were a number of reasons for writing the book. One, my first wife, Aisha, died very young of cancer, when our two sons were still just boys. I wanted to leave them the story of what an amazing women she was. It has never been easy for us to talk about her because it brings up strong feelings they often prefer to avoid, but I hoped that they could read and appreciate a book about her.

Two, there is a big picture reason for writing the book and a small picture reason.

The big picture reason is that the US news media and Hollywood movies continue to sell a very stereotypical view of Africa that is not accurate or reflective of the current reality. The news media always says Africa is poverty, war, disease and corruption. Those things exist in Africa, and I’m not denying it. But Africa is much more than those four things, and I felt that people like me who know Africa must speak out.

Hollywood insists on making Africa look ridiculous and that is simply insulting. Why do we have to watch animated movies like Madagascar that sell ridiculous ideas like African animals that would kill each other sneaking off on a plane to Madagascar? The message seems to be that we should not take Africa seriously, and it is just for our entertainment and amusement. I think ultimately the idea behind it is racist.

The small picture reason for writing the book is that I actually lived there and made friends and knew people. I believe it is my responsibility to tell Americans the truth.

Most Africans want to get an education and find a good job and get married and start a family and have a nice home and provide security for their future. How is that so different from what Americans want? The answer is that we have much more in common than most Americans realize, because we are constantly fed nonsense ideas about Africa and therefore Americans cannot imagine that Africans are very like us.

TBE: You spent nearly four decades in Africa. Can you share a defining moment or experience that shaped your perspective on the continent and its people?

Carl William Henn: Hmm. Good question. Tough to answer. It was not a single BIG moment but a lifetime of small moments. When I looked back and compared what I knew to what the media and movies tell people, I realized, OMG, in spite of the Internet and Google, people in America don’t seem to know any more about Africa than when I first went there 40 years ago.

How is that possible? Do people not want to know the truth? Are we just lazy, and do the media and movies just sell us ridiculous stereotypes to keep us in the dark?

The travel industry continues to sell the story that Africa is just a safari park and there are wild animals everywhere. Most people continue to believe it’s true.

But the reality is there are really a very few large safari parks on the continent where people can see the Big Five animals in the wild. Most of the wild animals have been forced into marginal areas or their habitat has been destroyed and they’re gone. In the U.S., we have done the same thing to dangerous animals like bears and cougars.

When I first asked African colleagues what they thought about elephants and such, they got rather annoyed. One colleague said, “Would you want an elephant in YOUR backyard?” I thought about it. I quickly realized how terrifying it would be to have a huge animal nearby that could crush you or destroy your home or your farm crops.

Anyway, I suppose to answer the question, the moment when everything changes is the moment you stop talking and start listening to African friends and colleagues. If you listen, you learn. You begin to appreciate how hard they have worked to get an education and a good job, and how easy it was for you because of all the resources we had at our disposal. At some point, you realize how amazing their successes are.

TBE: As a global health professional, your work in Africa covered diverse areas, from disaster relief to AIDS prevention. How did your career path influence the stories you chose to share in the book?

Carl William Henn: Another good question. I chose to enter public health after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco and working with polio kids. By that, I mean children who were incapacitated for life by polio, which is a preventable disease. All it takes is childhood vaccination. So of course it was obvious that the best thing is to prevent disease.

But then starting in the 80s the AIDS epidemic began to spread around the world, including Africa, and because it is sexually transmitted, it is difficult to find a way to prevent transmission completely, because it turns out people everywhere like sex.

Who knew?

I remember laughing internally when some of my scientist colleagues were scratching their heads trying to figure out why everyone didn’t use a condom every time, even after being told they should. I asked them, “Do you do everything you are supposed to do? Eat right, exercise enough, reduce alcohol intake, and so on? They would get very defensive about that. “Most of the time.” I would say, “But sometimes you still eat or drink too much, right? How is that so different?” In any case, it was fascinating work and very compelling because it was literally a matter of life or death.

We either had to find ways to reduce the spread of AIDs or provide more effective treatment options or both. And although it was heartbreaking at times, I was very motivated and never got bored with the work. I wasn’t interested in making money. Most jobs in the US did not appeal to me because the main incentive was money.

I tried to pick stories that helped to convey the essential truth of the situations that I encountered. Why do people fail to practice safe sex all the time? They fall in love, and then they say, “We don’t need to use a condom.” But then one of them gets infected and then infects their partner because they can’t bear to admit the truth. It’s tragic but it’s human nature. We can’t bear to admit our worst human failings.

TBE: Africa is often depicted through negative stereotypes in the media and movies. How did you tackle these misconceptions in your memoir, and what do you hope readers will take away from it? This is such a good question. How do we fight stereotypes?

Carl William Henn: It’s going to take a long time and a lot of people working together to overturn the old stereotypes, which are well-established and widely accepted. I can’t do it alone.

My theory is that if enough people write their stories based on the truth they saw in Africa, eventually it will make a difference. Eventually, one story will break through. I don’t expect my memoir to be a blockbuster because it’s my first book and I’m not a famous person. But someday, someone will write a true story that changes minds. I just hope to encourage others to write the truth they have learned and start change.

TBE: In your preface, you mentioned focusing on evidence-based public health programs. How did you navigate the balance between factual information and engaging storytelling in your memoir?

Carl William Henn: Good question. There are already a lot of books about AIDS in Africa written by medical professionals and journalists. Most of them focus on the facts and the evidence. So I didn’t think we needed another book like that.

Instead, I thought, why not write a book that is conversational and accessible to everyone and that includes a bit of humor as well? AIDS is not funny, and I did not try to make light of it, except to point out that Western doctors and epidemiologists sometimes could not see the forest for the trees. They could not imagine that some people still found that sex was fun and enjoyable even during an epidemic, in spite of the risk. We all take risks every day. Driving a car is very risky, but we all still do it.

I felt that I should point out some of the things people told us when we asked them to explain their thinking and behavior. When we asked one group why they did not use condoms all the time, a guy raised his hand and said, “You can’t eat candy without taking off the wrapper.” I thought that was hilarious and honest and pointed out exactly why people make the choices they do. So, I learned we have to listen.

TBE: Your journey took you across various African countries. Could you share one of the most memorable cultural experiences that left a lasting impression on you?

Carl William Henn: Oh. So many memorable experiences. Gosh. I think some of the funniest ones were:

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, learning to speak Arabic. I went to the vegetable market to buy some zucchini squash for dinner.

I asked, “Where is zucchini?” But that was not the right word. In Arabic, zucchini means, “my ass.” So the guy was laughing at me as he kept telling me it is behind you. As it was.

Then a crowd of people stopped to laugh and they were all saying, “This foreigner doesn’t know how to find his own ass!” When I realized the terrible mistake, I was so embarrassed that I forgot about the zucchini and ran home. I felt so stupid but later saw that it was actually very funny and I couldn’t stay home and hide forever.

The funny thing is when you can laugh at your own mistakes as you try to learn another language. I made so many terrible mistakes speaking Arabic. But I worked with little kids and they were great teachers. They were used to adults correcting them, so when I made a mistake, they corrected me as if I were a little child. In a way, I was like a child, because I knew nothing, and had to be corrected all the time.

I now think that if we all learned to think of ourselves as if we were children when we went abroad, we could make so many more friends and learn so much more.

TBE: Your book covers a vast timeline of your life in Africa. How did you approach the process of selecting and organizing the stories that made it into the final manuscript?

Carl William Henn: It was difficult. First of all, after 40 years, I had forgotten a lot, and had to work hard to retrieve old memories of the early days in Africa. I contacted some old friends who told me I got this or that story totally wrong. I was surprised how unreliable memory can be. Of course, you can’t use every story, so you end up choosing ones you think convey something important or make people laugh or illustrate a cultural point.

For the more recent time periods, I was better able to recall more of the details of people, places, and the experiences we had together. In particular, I was happy to tell the story of the bike club in Burundi, because it brought together the Hutu and the Tutsi people, the older and the younger, the richer and the poorer, all to ride bikes.

I wished that I could have convinced the BBC or the French or Belgian media to come to Bujumbura to see the bike club for themselves and report on how wonderful it is.

TBE: With over 100 color pictures and Spotify playlists, your book offers a unique multimedia experience. How do you believe these visual and auditory elements enhance readers’ connection to your stories?

Carl William Henn: Thank you for the kind words. When I started to write the book, I realized it would be impossible for me to describe an entire continent, and all the people, and the places. But I wanted readers to feel like they were there. I wanted to take them to Africa. So it was not hard to come to the realization that I had to include a lot of photographs.

But seeing is just one of the five senses. I had fallen in love with African music, so I wanted to share some of the wonderful music I had come across over the decades.

But then I had a problem – what about the copyright laws and paying the musicians? But the guy who designed the book, Tolu Shofule, said, why not just use Spotify QR codes? I was just stunned, because it was a perfect solution. He found it so quickly!

I have heard from many people that with the pictures and music, they felt like they were there with me in Africa. That was so rewarding to hear. I can’t take everyone to Africa physically, but maybe I can help them to imagine it better through this book.

The limitation is that I could not help people taste or feel Africa. It is hard to put food in a book! It gets very messy. Some people asked me why I didn’t include any recipes, but if you do that, it becomes a sort of cookbook, which was not my intent.

On the first cover, I showed typical foods from different countries, and some people thought it was a cookbook. I realized you have to choose cover images carefully.

TBE: With its blend of humor and candidness, your writing style is engaging. How did you find your narrative voice, and were there any authors or influences that inspired your approach to storytelling?

Carl William Henn: Thank you again. That’s very kind. I wanted the book to feel like a conversation. Like talking to a friend. So I tried to use a conversational tone. In fact, I had broken my left wrist just before I started to write the draft, so I could not type. I had to dictate a lot.

I realized that it caused me to adopt a conversational style that I really liked. My editor on the other hand did not like it. He wanted me to write more professionally.

So we had quite a few discussions about that topic and we didn’t always agree.

As far as other authors, I had learned from other travel writers over the years. My personal favorite is Bill Bryson, who is famous for his self-deprecating humor. I want to sound like him. He is also from the American Midwest, a self-deprecating region. We have self-deprecating conferences and reunions. (I’m just kidding about that!)

But there are also “intrepid travel writers” who do amazing things that ordinary people could not do. They tend to write as if they are the hero of the story. I enjoy reading some of their books, but I am not intrepid, and I can’t write that way. I would feel like an idiot; I was brought up to be modest. And I hate boasting about myself.

The other category of travel writing is usually some sort of hot romance abroad or a personal transformation or religious experience. I am actually a shy person by nature who would not feel comfortable disclosing too much about my love life, even when I tell about meeting my first wife. And I am shocked by how explicit some books are.

I also have grown kids and I would not want to embarrass them by disclosing too many details about my romance with my first wife. I don’t think much of “tell all” books. It seems to me to be a cheap, easy way to attract a lot of attention. But it is usually just a sell-out in my opinion. Instead of writing a good book, you just go the easy route of dishing dirt or telling tales that would probably best be left untold. On the other hand, that is just my opinion and it’s not my business to censor others.

TBE: Your memoir touches on love, loss, and resilience. Can you share how these personal experiences shaped your understanding of Africa and its people?

Carl William Henn: Hmm. Not sure I get your point. Love – my first wife? We’ve talked about that a bit.

Loss – the death of my first wife was a deeply painful experience that still haunts me. I struggled at the time with the way the people from the mosque handled things. It took me years – maybe decades – to be able to look back and realize that they did what they believed was appropriate, and that I had failed to learn about Muslim burial practices before my first wife died. I suppose I was afraid to think about it.

The unexpected death of someone close is always traumatic.

We also had a cook in Zambia who eventually died after a sudden illness that the family later admitted was AIDS. She left us when she got sick. Her symptoms did not suggest that she had AIDS. She complained instead of being tired and having aches.

So we were totally shocked when her husband came and told us she had died and that it was due to AIDS. We had given her sick leave and always expected her back. But she had disappeared to stay with family at some hidden, unknown location.

The shocking part was that the family hid the truth about her illness because of the stigma of AIDS in Africa. It was the stigma that ultimately killed her. It turns out she never went for an HIV test, and then later did not seek treatment that might have saved her life, until it was too late. Had we only known we could have helped her. I felt like such a failure because I should have known or suspected it was AIDS. But I would have expected typical signs – rapid weight loss, frequent infections, TB, etc.

TBE: My Two Centuries in Africa” offers readers a call to action. How do you hope your book will contribute to challenging stereotypes and fostering cultural appreciation?

Carl William Henn: This is a huge question with no easy answer. How does any social problem change? How do we end poverty or racism? I can only hope that there will be many books like mine that will seek to tell what Africa is really like, and that eventually one or more of them will make some impact, perhaps resulting in a major movie that people see.

And I have to hope that many African nations and writers will also try to tell their stories honestly and that people will begin at some point to pay more attention. There are a lot more African writers being published internationally than before.

I think we need both kinds of books. Foreigners who travel need to come home from Africa and tell the honest truth, in words that their countrymen can understand.

African writers on the other hand are not trying to explain their home countries to the rest of the world, but only trying to tell honest stories of their own experiences.

So if we get both kinds of books and consider them all they can inform the world.

TBE: Now that your book is out in the world, what are your next adventures, and do you have any plans to continue writing about your experiences or other topics?

Carl William Henn: Hmm. I have decided I am too old to go back to live in Africa. My next book is going to be about a tour of the 48 lower states to promote the book to independent bookstores. I have a couple more books in mind. I would love to go back to visit Africa. Also I let my passport expire and have been very lazy about getting a new one.

As I begin to work on the second book, ironically, I am at the same starting point as the first one: no agent, no publisher. The chances of the second book succeeding are probably about the same as the first, virtually nil. But I am committed to writing it.

So, here goes nothing! What could I lose, except another two years of my life?

Sigh…thanks for all the thoughtful questions!

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