Welcome to the new version of European Tribune. It's just a new layout, so everything should work as before - please report bugs here.

The Other Africa

by Nomad Tue Aug 31st, 2010 at 06:07:03 AM EST

The Africa we travel through is riddled with stereotypes. It starts with the children in hand-me-down rags shouting "Mzungu!" at us at every turn. The slender African women striding along the roads, tall bunches of firewood poised flawlessly on their heads. The African men on the doorsteps of their mud huts, sitting idle. It continues with the humpbacked cows, trailing dust and blocking the roads. The endless charities, orphanages and the philanthropist volunteers still burning with the ideological flame to do-good.

And stereotypes are positively overwhelming for travellers through Africa. That includes me, probably. The self-catering: locked up inside an air-conditioned Toyota Hilux with rooftop tents, wearing blouses with 47 pockets and impenetrable sun-glasses. The posh kids inside the towering overland busses, criss-crossing across the continent from Kenya to Cape Town like locusts. The "Adventure Tours": for the exceedingly affluent, being driven from luxurious lodge to luxurious lodge with pools, whiskeys and ice.

There were so many stereotypes, so much superficiality, I developed the creeping sensation I was missing out on the real Africa, the other Africa.

front-paged by afew


Here is a first stereotype. For Africans, every white person is (perceived as) rich. The first time I became acutely aware of this (again) was by Albano, who was filling up our tank nearby Gorongosa, Mozambique, and asking quite frank questions. We want to see southern Africa, get to know the people. Albano nodded agreeably. "Seeing the countryyyy, the animals, spending the moneeeeeeey," he expounded for me. I was about to say: "Well, we're not that rich." But I swallowed, and was left dumb. The petrol station was the first decent building from stone for the last 250 kms, and was surrounded by corrugated iron and reed huts.

In comparison, I'm astoundingly rich. I worked some 10 months, and managed to save up enough to buy a ticket to fly to SA, purchase a second-hand vehicle and still leaving enough funds to keep me afloat for another 3 months. So, yes, spending the moneeeeeeeey, indeed.

But not as rich as many of my fellow Africa visitors are spending. Although I've no hard numbers, I'd easily wager that the core business of African tourism is for the most luxurious - a possible relic from the colonial epoch, when Africa was only a destination for the absurdly opulent. No hard numbers, but in a Lonely Planet, out of the ten listed accommodations 5-6 are constantly at the very top of the range. Which is a horribly skewed cross-cut of the western population, as rich as we are.

We had a peep behind the curtain of cash on one our decadent splurges - because the occasional injection of a bit of money always provided extraordinary highlights. We did feel awkwardly culture-shocked, entering a vestibule fit for a James Bond hotel. The Royal Livingstone, on the riverfront of the Zambezi and a click away from the might of the Victoria Falls, breathes the old colonial whippersnapper spirit of yore. Panelled walls. Marble floors. Polished mirrors. Chandeliers. Classical music. I couldn't resist, and asked the price for a double - $625 per night. Which is nearly twice the amount of the annual income of many ordinary Africans. We sat at the solar deck, sipping ice tea, overhearing one customer complaining about the miserable service, curled our toes in frustration and cursed our skin colour. Yes, the luxurious lodges provide local jobs, but it also continues to foster the inane colonial doctrine of black lackeys serving boorish white people, and instilling the hopelessly flawed perception that every white person is insanely rich.

That's one.

It was already puzzling me that the spheres in which we ordinarily moved, the ones for the not-so affluent backpacker, were also seemingly void of the sphere of the majority of black Africans. And during the weeks, I kept on waiting, unsuccessfully, to meet and interact with that ordinary Africa. But in Africa, white tourists are catered for by predominantly white-owned accommodations.

In Tofo, Mozambique, it's a public secret that 90% of all property is owned by (white) South Africans. The "second Great Trek" it is called, mockingly. At Cape McClear, lake Malawi, the sandy shore is incongruently parcelled up with run-down houses and chunka of lodges, with a bar and a restaurant - you don't even need to leave the fenced off perimeter. The owners of the only campsite between Chipata and Lusaka, Zambia, are a Dutch-English couple. And so on, and so forth. By the time we reached Lusaka, bathing in a bubble of western decadence, I had given up. Perhaps, I wondered after Toy Story 3, our first cinema since Johannesburg, this is what people want: taking your 7-years old on a Saturday afternoon to an American movie, and eating popcorn. Because for once the audience was finally a proper mix of colours and cultures. Still skewed, but considerably better.

Thus poverty, I concluded, was now the rift that not only persists in keeping stereotypes alive, but also prevents me from meeting ordinary Africans during my journey.

That was two.

My thinking turned to different levels of luxury in Tsumeb, Namibia, amidst the folded carbonates. We had been herded to the ill-named "biergarten" by our cluck of a chatty hostess, and had been served dish-water coffee with chunks of foam. We weren't particularly enjoying the brew while we overheard how our hostess was instructing the new assistant in the typically strident tone that becomes white Africans and always carry an overtone of belittlement. "Training them is so difficult," she'd say to us, loud enough to be heard in the kitchen. Next she berated the chap for not stacking the saucers properly. Another example, a few days later. We were ready for departing from our campsite, and our hostess queried about our next destination. Khorixas, I said. "There's not much there," she conveyed to us. "It's really a black town, see." She said it kindly, without a trace of racism.

This dismissal of almost anything related to "blackness" (for a better word), was a constant during this journey, and was poised to become my third bigger irritation. Except now I understood a bit better - it was something beyond simple racism: we were now bumping at something at a cultural level. Although our wealth was again a factor in this, now also our pedigree was getting in the way.

Because we are the pampered ones, expecting hot water to come from a tap, white sheets to sleep on, a spoon & saucer for our cup of tea served just like that, and think lowly of those establishments that are not "up" (watch that language!) to our standards. Tea shouldn't be served in a worn, plastic mug, brewed from river-water, using a charred pot, on a wood-fire. But it's still perfectly fine tea - who's complaining?

I think a lot of George, our guide through the Okavango Delta in Botswana, when I think of the ordinary Africans we didn't meet. George lives in a mud hut with a roof of sticks. He has a wife and "only" 3 children. As so many, he is a farmer, has 42 cows, a few donkeys and goats. He sleeps on a filthy mattress that would break the back of most western people. His staple meal is "pap" - a concoction of mealie-meal, sorghum and soured milk that is so sour, that at my first sampling my taste buds wanted to evacuate my mouth, and my eyes budded tears. George savours the stuff, empties easily a whole pot, and eats it two to three times a day, every day. He is reticent, and hard to fathom, related to his limitations in English, and our limitations in seTswana. But he's kind, gentle, with a deep understanding of the environment around him, and with a deep respect, bordering fear, for the more dangerous animals. George seems perfectly happy and complacent with his life (although I didn't ask if he was and if I had, I doubt if he would openly disagree).

Let I close with the story I read from the owner of Ngepi Camp, a campsite that sits at the Okavango river and is crafted with a stunningly harmonious symbiosis with its environment. It goes like this: having set up Ngepi Camp with the consent of the local community, Mark had hired a manager who managed to displease several members of said community. A council, African style, was called for and Mark was asked to send his manager away. He protested, and argued that if he'd fire his manager, he would have to close down, and the community would lose their share of income from Ngepi Camp. The argumentation was received in silence. Then the community elder rose, and voiced a devastating judgement: Mark had shown in front of the entire community his complete lack of understanding of the community. Yes, the money from the campsite was nice - but it was also entirely unnecessary. They had managed life just fine before Mark had appeared on the scene. Money did not mean anything. Of course Mark left in a huff, kept the manager, lost a chunk of respect of the community, but was at least humbled enough by the experience to start thinking about poverty in general, and what it means when Bob Geldof commiserates on and on about the amount of people living in dire conditions with less than 1$ per day.

Some people in southern Africa are living with less than 1$ per day, and are doing just fine - because their value, or capital if we must, does not rest in money. And some people in Africa have already consciously rejected the western obsession of monetising each aspect of life, including their happiness.

Is Africa poor? Yes, horribly so, and no denying it. But the western definition of poverty has been incapable of distinguishing "poverty" as a conscious lifestyle, a culture that would thrive perfectly fine, were it not that it is under pressure exactly because it is not allowed to exist in the western paradigm. For some people, Africa is not that hopeless as Bono makes it out to be.

Thus, yes, it is possible to see Africa and never lose a modicum of western comforts - but they come at a price, which makes seeing Africa in that way actually expensive. Seeing the other Africa doesn't cost money, but it takes a mental step-down: it takes nerves, an iron stomach and re-evaluates the western values. And therefore, in the end, travelling tells us more about our own values and preferences, even more than it tells us about the values and customs of ordinary Africans, which remain, together with their motivations for why they are preferred, a complete enigma to the ordinary traveller, even after 2 months of being on the road, wanting to learn more about Africa.

And that's clearly my third point of irritation on this journey.


Display:
I'm having a good time, really.
by Nomad on Tue Aug 24th, 2010 at 01:59:03 PM EST
... mingling with middle class Africans ... where the middle income class is far above the median and more like a 19th century understanding of a "middle class" ...

... how many middle class Americans or Europeans actively seek out the company of international tourists as we go about our day to day lives?

I also wonder how much of intra-African travel that is not business trips is to visit family as opposed to "tourism" as such.

It may be that traveling to Africa as a member of an African family will result in a substantially different experience. In any event, if I get my Income Base Repayments for my main student loan approved, I hope to find that out this coming Christmas.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Aug 24th, 2010 at 02:49:51 PM EST
[ Parent ]
how many middle class Americans or Europeans actively seek out the company of international tourists as we go about our day to day lives?

Couchsurfing.com (among others) make this happen really easily. I'd be hosting people constantly but sadly my roommates don't approve.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 03:54:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
yes, couchsurfing is seriously cool, from what people who have done it say.

this help x and workaway thing is amazing too. 27 people through here since february!

these 'agencies' are really using the net for what it's great for...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 05:08:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
beautiful diary, Nomad, as always.

so nice to have you in extra-EU roving reporter mode again too.

the gulf is huge, between us born to the first world and the other 4/5ths of humanity. i had no idea really of how huge, until at 18, i stepped off a steamer at Casablanca, after 4 days journey from southampton or portsmouth, i canna remember any more.

my first peek outside the euro-bubble, and though it sounds trite, i felt my worldview do summersaults within the first 5 minutes, as though familiar with the sounds, sights and smells of Naples, it had not prepared me for the maelstrom of sensuous assault that greeted me setting foot on land.

what grabbed me at first was the old men, they had such dignity, then the packs of children, bright eyed and agile, swarming like bees around the influx of walking wallets.

it had been a very pleasant trip, mostly spent jamming with a fellow passenger on acoustic guitars, with a gorgeous side stopover at Lisbon, after a majestically slow trip on the Targus river, slow enough to observe the country folk as they toiled in fields beside the riverbanks... so i was quite relaxed, already light years from the stressful hubbub of London.

hard to describe the feelings, sweltering in shock at the raw vitality of the Moroccans, their wise eyes and proud bearing, the strangeness of their attire, the strong, foxy smells from funky sewerage, the music pounding strange scales and rhythms from teahouses, where old sages from central casting dipped chunks of sugar in their mint tea and slipped sipsi kif pipes from their socks, took a few draws from their magic mix stored on a sheep's bladder, and then tucked them back away discreetly.

men sleeping on the sidewalk/pavement in full 100F sun, dressed head to toe in quarter inch thick wool, caped and falling to ankle length.

it was like coming home...it felt challenging and soothing at the same time, so many answers to questions yet unfully formulated, there in plain sight, and much more hiding and peeking from around dusty corners.

6 months, hitching, walking, sharing bread and tajin with lorry drivers, cruising the souks, marvelling at the artisanry, big 55 gallon drums on street corners with hot chickpea soup for sale, and all seemed harmonious, locals proudly told me how even the poorest never went to bed hungry.

what remained mysterious was the world of women, hidden and veiled, they existed in a parallel world of their own. i was still too immature to reflect very deeply on this, but my girlfriend travelling with me, 21, was half scottish, half guadeloupienne, raised in Paris, and it was through her i became aware of how judgemental it felt for her living along such an overtly patriarchal society. she looked marakshi to the locals, and in her jeans and unscarved head, she attracted not a few hisses of negative judgment from passers by.

we clambered smartish onto a bus to marrakesh, shared with goats, poultry, and mostly local folks. tourism wasn't very thick on the ground, back in 69, and we felt very visible, but not too vulnerable, as our hosts were usually extremely kind and hospitable. one wild party thrown by the decadent scion of the Krupp family was especially memorable, but apart from that insight into how the rich and famous could live in the perfumed gardens behind the high walls, we were in the cheapest dives, the kind where the nightwatchman would lie and sleep on the floor by the main entrance.        

walking the streets and peeking in on the rare occasions a gate would open was always a revelation, cool courtyards redolent with orange blossoms and fountains awaiting hidden from the street.

the last 3 months we spent working kitchen duties in a Tangier beach bar, going to the market in the morning, buying bread, fig-size black olives and other tasty delights, sleeping in a little stucco cabin yards from the water, with a stained glass window. we could see the camel trains silhouetted on the dawn skyline of berber people bringing the produce in from the countryside...

we had tea with brian gysin, a fascinating fellow, hiked along essaouira beaches talking to the boatbuilders, admiring the blue and white tones of the town.

so many amazing memories, thanks for stirring the soup Nomad. perhaps this comment will help explain why i am such a fan of your writing, so right on the cultural interface, and right with reflections on riddles impenetrable.

 my only (hopefully constructive) criticism, your diaries are always too short, they feel like a tease-trailer to some great movie!

we are really lucky here at ET...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 08:47:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great comment, Melo.  I had a similar experience, c. 1973 when I was kicked out of college and wanted to see the world from outside a European consciousness.  Having already felt I needed to unlearn everything I had learnt in school I was ready for a jarring experience and headed off through Europe hitch hiking and sleeping rough.

A one a and a half day wait for a lift outside Madrid has ended up with my meeting a trucker at a trucker café and he offered me a lift to Morocco - his destination.  He was a Swiss guy who had had some kind of (drug related?) near death experience in India which ended up transforming him into a Minister back in Switzerland.

The police on the boat over to Morocco insisted my long hair be shorn and some deck hand was only too glad to perform the service for a considerable fee and no aptitude for the task whatsoever!

Hitching around Fez, Marrakesh and Casablanca was a similar experience with one three day wait for a lift and many frozen nights amongst the orange groves.  I met up with a gang of youths in Marrakesh and we spend some days frequenting souks, cafes, smoking hash and drinking sweet mint tea.

I was somewhat taken aback at the open homosexual advances (towards me) and the sexual frustrations of men with no access to women and no prospect of doing so unless they had an income and two supportive families.

I wandered one day into finely cultivated gardens where I discovered a warm waterfall and had the most delicious shower of my life.  As I was walking away I notice soldiers amongst the workers in the gardens and tried to look, as much as possible, that I belonged in the place.

I discovered afterwards I had wandered into a summer residence of King Hasan and I would have been lucking not to lose a hand had I been discovered as a trespasser.

Otherwise there was no sense of fear or hostility, only an abiding obsession with money by any back packer I came across - perhaps the very "European" (or even more so, "American") trait I had been trying to get away from.

In that I perhaps felt closer to the locals than the travellers, but linguistic barriers always made true friendship difficult. That, and the fact there seemed no prospect of my finding work anywhere.

I returned to "Europe" to work in a warehousing job in London to replenish depleted coffers and link up with some "alternative" communities I had become aware of in college.

The experience probably changed me more than any education and yet still I feel remote from African culture - an experience reinforced by 6 Months spend in South Africa some years ago after the fall of Apartheid (but not its economic and political consequences).

I plan to return to Malawi and South Africa in a couple of months time but have no illusions about being much more than a tourist.  I have some friends to revisit and some promises to keep and Africa will always be a remote fascination for me - A place I would love to live but do not deserve to make home.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 11:09:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
wow, yes... i really resonate a lot with your experience, especially the getting kicked out of school, and the 'unlearning'.

i never could take europe totally seriously after seeing over the edge of it, and to a great extent i still can't, no matter how i feel i should!

the most telling realisation i think came from the beauty of the markets in Tangier, the feast for the senses they were, how pleasurable it was to smell the tuberose and ripe melons, and see the incredible ethnic mix of people and traditions, a melee of awesome.

i reflected on the local safeway in ken high st. with -whoa!- electrically photobeamed self-opening doors, and inside the rigidly marshalled fruits and veggies in military rows, all looking like clones in their horrible, fluorescent-lit ghost world, all bland and shorn of any sensuality. the people too...

and i reflected... we think we're more 'evolved' than they are, we actually pity them, we are so damn sure we're better, further along, more fortunate.

and it hit me hard between the eyes... if we can be so wrong about some things so simple, i had to question everything else we assumed too.

i laughed out loud, i realised we were at lewis carrol levels of ridiculous, we had fallen in love with our own reflections on the shiny chrome reality we were creating, and the Madmen were busily concocting spells to keep us in the mindless consumer trance that kills the soul and stifles the imagination, cauterising the magic out of life.

it broke my heart, even as i laughed...

we had eschewed nobility, somewhere it had been jettisoned in favour of self regard, and the hunt for the slickest deal.

people told me, 'you love morocco, you'll love india more', and there was truth to that, as i stayed 6 months there too a couple of years later.

but morocco was my first peep out the eurobox, and i'll always have a soft spot for her because of that!

really enjoying these reminiscences, thanks for uncorking them, guys...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 05:00:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
After a trip in Africa (Cameroon), I can't pretend to know antything, but I feel that I can't nor should argue for simplicity to people who often are a meal away from starvation.

I'm really all in favor of simplicity for myself (when I can make it a way of life that I like), but I will not defend it for people so poor that they can't weather the simplest life accident. And my feeling is that there is a lot of africa's misery summed up in "can't weather accidents".

In Cameroon, I met (and worked with) locals who were at the european standard of formation/knowledge and job skills. I also met (and employed) people who were living for CFA 10k a month per person, even when I paid them above the local minimum wage.
I talked to middle class people who were telling me how hard it was to get jobs, and at the same time, I could see basic infrastructures missing, or badly maintained (roads, water, electricity). I had interesting discussion with my fellow colleagues (who I believed quite liked having them) about why houses were not made of stones in mountain countries but in imported cement, or why the city was not employing people to clean sewers (no tax, no money, no job).

I still have problems to understand why, appart the technological side of development, one country doesn't manage to build and maintain structures that could be found in antic India or medieval Mali, like waterways, houses. I feel it is for the lack of legitimate power in these countries (where the gov is often backed by former european colonisator).

In Cameroon, there exist a small city/country where, at the beginning of the XXth century, the local king forced a small scale modernization of its country, some ten years before colonization. He tried to get from a rural village to an urban center, with written-royal acts, simple technologies to better the farm output (like corn smasher), and commercial/political domination of the area.
It didn't work in the end, because he was overpowered by the europeans (french and germans). I'm convinced that there could be african leaders of that kind today, who would make the "enforced simplicity" a chosen one, or more, but not only a european view of what simple (but happy) man should be on the earth.
 

by Xavier in Paris on Tue Aug 31st, 2010 at 11:31:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
People need sovereignty. The entire point of neo-colonialism and corporate globalization is that corporations (the former colonizer's in the case of neo-colonialism, global in the case of corporate globalization) have sovereignty over all that matters, and people at best have sovereignty over trinkets and meaningless rituals. So, we're all in the same boat, only us 'Westerners' have our rapidly deteriorating but to some extent real sovereignty to sustain us, which most African nations have never had.

fairleft
by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Tue Aug 31st, 2010 at 01:10:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I talked quite a lot about this with my colleagues when I was there. They told me that it was very difficult to embrace any carreer without support from the (local) people above.
If and when the people above are an old lifelong president supported by the former colonizing power, this has some implications.
People outside the frame of this have it very difficult to get a job.
I'll say that the scarcity of jobs is capital. If the economy was going well enough, the power would not have so much importance in giving access to a position. But could you have a thriving economy, when a great part of it consists in harvesting naturale ressources?
In Cameroon, there are 4 main sources of revenues: oil (declining, exploitation shared between the french and chinese), trees (exploited by the french company Bolloré - a close friend of Sarkozy), precious stones (by the coreans), and fish (by the  chinese).
All of them are dependent of "sovereignty" as they need the proper authorizations and permits by the cameroon state. Such documents are a clear source of black money at all levels. I feel that it would take a virtuous gov clerck to favorise its own people access to the resource (which do NOT need permits so no black money, eg: fish) over the money channeling permit to a foreign harvester.
But why? Coreans or chinese do not have a military presence, so why do we see the same colonized/colonizing process taking place?
by Xavier in Paris on Wed Sep 1st, 2010 at 02:30:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
When the institutional set up of a country is thightly conditioned for a specific process, that process becomes the default one...

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Wed Sep 1st, 2010 at 03:59:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You can tell the real writers when their tales evoke such writerly comments.  Not to mention the varied wealth of many-worlds experience shared here.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anaïs Nin
by Crazy Horse on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 02:50:45 PM EST
Crazy Horse:
 Not to mention the varied wealth of many-worlds experience shared here.

you got that right!

lawd ha' mercy, it's a magic bus.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 05:14:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But the western definition of poverty has been incapable of distinguishing "poverty" as a conscious lifestyle, a culture that would thrive perfectly fine, were it not that it is under pressure exactly because it is not allowed to exist in the western paradigm.

Well, we abuse ourselves with that as much as we abuse anyone else.

Without writing out a long narrative, it was interesting while traveling to see money as simply one of many variables in people's quality of life, and the ability to see it that way wasn't so much from being absorbed into another culture as it was not being completely levered into my own.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 04:12:41 PM EST
MillMan:
Without writing out a long narrative,

grr, write it already! ;)

you have a curiously unique slant on travel, millman, i would love to read what you're carrying in your memories.

maybe you are still integrating...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 05:04:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I read in the 90ies about some German fellow who lived in the swedish forests. He was not harming anyone, he was keeping the rules of allemansrätten, and living of foraged fruits, berries and mushrooms and such. He ordered to deport as he did not earn enough to be considered working in Sweden. And if anyone missed it, the right to free movement in the EU deals mainly with the right to free movement for those well of or working, not for the poor un-working.

Do not remember what happened though, maybe he is still walking the swedish forests, eating his berries.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 05:07:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
germans do these things so thoroughly...

i knew a guy who drove a 1920's tractor down to italy from germany hauling a gypsy caravan, all on back roads!

the mind boggles.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 05:16:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Seeing the other Africa doesn't cost money, but it takes a mental step-down: it takes nerves, an iron stomach and re-evaluates the western values. And therefore, in the end, travelling tells us more about our own values and preferences, even more than it tells us about the values and customs of ordinary Africans, which remain, together with their motivations for why they are preferred, a complete enigma
 

This was my experience, too, when, many years ago and very briefly, I was traveling in India.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Wed Aug 25th, 2010 at 09:51:59 PM EST
Excellent travelogue!

But travelers need to be careful with conclusions like this as well:

Some people in southern Africa are living with less than 1$ per day, and are doing just fine - because their value, or capital if we must, does not rest in money. And some people in Africa have already consciously rejected the western obsession of monetising each aspect of life, including their happiness.

After much travel in work in less industrialized countries a decade ago I had also come to many of the same thoughts and questions about poverty and our own cultural biases regarding wealth and poverty that you have. I once voiced them while in a discussion as a guest on an Egyptian TV talk show about the topic of poverty, development, and Western expectations. A video of an educated, European woman who had traveled to Africa framed the discussion where she commented on how, with none of the things that Europeans "need," so many of the so-called poor she had met still laughed and were genuinely happy. I noted how I had a similar experiences and thoughts about my own travels, expressing what I thought would be a sympathetic criticism of our extremely materialist "First World" values compared to many of the so-called less developed regions of the world.  

But my supposedly sympathetic comment was met with unexpected scorn by the Egyptian talk show host, a man whose brother had been imprisoned and tortured by the Egyptian government. "Only a privileged white person could think so absurdly," he chastised me. "Of course the people you met on your travels are laughing.  Compared to yours, our lives are a joke."

by santiago on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 04:13:54 PM EST
Does a talk show host in Egypt know anything more about people living on $1 a day than you or I do?

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 05:16:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, that was my initial, immature reaction too, but it would have been too flippant to ask it of a man who recently recovered his beaten brother from a government prison for dissidents.  

His point is still valid regardless: How can a rich person ever claim to be wise enough to suggest that a poor person is actually better off without the rich person's wealth and not come off as being absurdly self-serving. I challenge anyone to find more than a handful of people who live on less than a dollar a day anywhere in Africa who wouldn't sympathize with pop rapper Travie McCoy.

by santiago on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 06:25:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How can a rich person ever claim that a poor person would be better off with their wealth and not come across as absurdly patronising?

You're giving the standard capitalist party of line, of course - growth is good, etc.

I'm sure there are people in China and Taiwan who'd agree with you.

But they may not be the ones in the factories doing the work.

Your mendacious implication is that 'riches' are a one dimensional good that Africans either have or don't have.

In practice what usually seems to happen when Westerners turn up promising riches, is that the riches are perhaps not made as widely available as they might be.

Anyone who questions this too aggressively will indeed be killed or tortured.

And perhaps you're not aware of the new anticapitalist movements which aren't interested in G20 confrontations or grandstanding, but are interested in promoting sufficiency rather than greed as a core social value, and which see the capitalist West as an inherently dysfunctional and insane place no matter how rich the people appear to be.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 06:50:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And perhaps you're not aware of the new anticapitalist movements which aren't interested in G20 confrontations or grandstanding, but are interested in promoting sufficiency rather than greed as a core social value, and which see the capitalist West as an inherently dysfunctional and insane place no matter how rich the people appear to be.

Actually, I'm not. I'm not aware of anything that can honestly be called a "new anti-capitalist movement" today and that has the kind of force for change in society in any way comparable to the failed, confrontational approaches of the 1970's and 1980's.  I see bloggers/dreamers and a few NGO's, and some good people doing their own thing in different parts of the world as counter-culture people have always done, but as a movement, it looks to be a depressingly declining thing, not a rising one as the force of globalization increasingly overtakes the power to control local matters. What are you referring to?

by santiago on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 07:51:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I can't say I'm surprised you're not.

The dreamers are the capitalists. Physically and socially impossible development demands remain the perfect definition of late capitalist insanity.

I'd suggest the anti-growth movements might well be reviving under the radar. Just because they're not punching policemen doesn't mean they're not active.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 08:05:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So who are they?  Examples?
by santiago on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 08:07:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One mental trap that it is important not to fall into, however, is to assume that there can be only two options available to African people: To carbon-copy European industrial society or remain in mud huts using hand-made tools.

How to make a modern society based on the parts of their society that Africans value the most is a question that is way above my pay grade, though.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 07:10:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree, but it is a trap that seems amazingly irresistible, especially if you're poor. Has simplicity in living ever been anything more than a minority reaction to a dominant culture of growth and power in the history of civilization?  It also means that it matters a lot who speaks of it. It's just never going to be a very compelling argument for someone from Europe or North America to tell someone in Africa they can live without a cell phone and all the trade-offs in life they need to make to have one. It might be more compelling though when an African leader from an urban or rural slum can make that argument, but the track record on that sort of revolutionary action by indigenous leaders instead of by western interlopers has been pretty bleak so far -- Pol Pot, Sendero Luminoso, Cultural Revolution, etc. Is there a compelling alternative for people to growth and power a la capitalism?
by santiago on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 08:05:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
All you have to do is tell them that they won't have to deal with enforced dictatorships, won't have to deal with colonial expropriation, and won't find themselves in wars.

That's usually pretty convincing to people who have just had their homes blown up.

Have Africa's resource wars been any less damaging than Pol Pot's legacy? Or do you only count socialist sociopaths in your calculations?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 08:15:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If they want to adopt a European industrial model, then I certainly won't gainsay that decision - after all, I quite like living in a European industrial state. All I'm arguing is that if and when first-world countries help with industrial development in third-world countries, it should be done on the basis of informed consent and a good-faith effort to present a range of realistic options, rather than "our way or the highway." It's a little more work, but I suspect that the results will be much better and more durable.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Aug 26th, 2010 at 08:27:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ugh. Break out the hologram generator if you are wanting for choices.

And why aren't the great killers of the Capitalist Revolution, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and Bush up there with Pol Pot. It wasn't for want of trying

And the poor workers who have to spend all day herding the people on the ExpressWaysTM during their multi-hours of Daily AMRadioHateTM. Does anyone think about them? They can't take their herd out to the drive in for a soda and a movie, or a long walk on the beach, they can't even take their work home with them. They don't even get any of the curds and whey that the drivers or cars make.

I wanted some of that Domestic Tranquility stuff, but it turned into a sub-heading for Common Defense. General Welfare and Posterity are just gonna have to wait.

Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge.

Frank Delaney ~ Ireland

by siegestate (siegestate or beyondwarispeace.com) on Sun Aug 29th, 2010 at 07:34:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Gandhi had some strong arguments as to why indians should avoid the trappings of the western lifestyle (while importing and improving some western ideas). Lived the part to. Out of style in India now, but it did inspire much of the western green movement.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Mon Aug 30th, 2010 at 04:27:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I read this diary twice and appreciate that it was frontpaged, because the knowledge it imparts can't be obtained elsewhere. Thanks.

by shergald on Tue Aug 31st, 2010 at 08:50:34 AM EST


Display:
Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]