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.
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.