10/08/2013 09:10 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Big Seven African Aid Species: Owning "The Real Africa"

Type 7 -- "The Real Africa". People in international development earn competitive points for degree of difficulty. This can take various forms: you can boast about how your intestinal parasite is so much more voracious and intractable than a colleague's. About how you never take malaria meds but instead have built up a natural immunity. How you avoid Mogadishu because 'it's become too gentrified'.

How that time you were mugged in Kinshasa but chased down your assailants, chipped your Bluetooth but recovered your tablet and iPod, with no hard feelings, and in fact shook hands with your attackers, kissed on either cheek, and ended up exchanging recipes, in French, for a wicked crème brulée.

Or that other time you almost died aboard a Soviet-built aircraft (it is important to constantly brag about one's near-death experience aboard an Ilyushin or Mil Mi-8), but luckily were sitting in the plane's smoking section, next to the cockpit, drinking vodka shooters, and bounced out of the fuselage to a soft buzzed landing on the serengeti. Aid workers are forever grateful to Cold War aeronautical engineers for affording them so many exciting, mostly-true stories.

You can screech: "I drive my own car, myself!". This is a sign of gutsy independence in a continent of locally-employed drivers and drive-by shootings. You can drop into conversation words from Wolof, in which you are fluent, while the rest of the money-grubbing world, herd-like, learns Mandarin.

For development types, it's important to be seen to be in constant motion to and from Nairobi. Despite the al-Shabab attack, Nairobi is like the girls' bathroom in high school, where the cool kids hung out (development types were not cool at this stage of their enlightenment). The Kenyan capital is where you keynote on your latest boil-water program, catch up on gossip, tweet about the value of face-time, where you are seen striding purposefully through hotel lobbies or leaving wet patches from flip-flops as you scuttle back from a Mombasa beach. Nairobi has frequent Emirates connections.

When you return to the World Bank and its subsidized cafeterias, you have a 14-day grace period during which it is understood you are allowed to interrupt any conversation with: "I was just in Nairobi and....".

Some though regard Nairobi as too soft. For them, DRC is 'the real Africa.' Aid workers fantasize about 'the real Africa'. According to this lexicon, 'real' is a synonym for 'bad' or 'hardship' or 'Darwinian'. DRC appeals to the imagination -- the Congo River, Heart of Darkness, King Leopold, Patrice Lumumba, Poisonwood Bible, derivatives like Apocalypse Now. It's why the country attracts an unusual mix of French, Film Studies, Creative Writing and English majors, but fewer of the more needed professions like, say, engineers and agronomists.

African countries emerging from conflict - and there are always a few -- come with an added bonus: widespread poverty and an absence of hospitality infrastructure means there's rarely a foreign tourist to be seen. Nothing spoils the mood, contaminates one's pure African humanitarian experience faster than seeing another white face. Think how pissed off Livingstone must have been to see Stanley strolling into that clearing in Ujiji.

In present-day Africa, the polite thing to do upon seeing a pale-faced interloper like oneself is to look off vacantly into the distance, sort of like if you were driving in your home country and you cut somebody off, and then the person you cut off pulled up alongside you at the next light. You look resolutely ahead, concentrating on the traffic signal as if it was a new and wondrous creation.

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