Is it truly possible to go anywhere without expectations? To enter a foreign land with an open mind, leave our worldview behind and see it blankly for the first time?
Africa. A continent of 55 recognized independent nation with nearly 2000 different languages and at least 3000 different tribes. Some hates it when Westerners sums it up as if it is one unifying place with one identity, a moment of ignorance if you will. It is anything but singular. Africa is an incredible place, a place of extremes and contrast. It shifts from blinding light to extreme darkness in an effortless move.
I’ve experienced both spectrums in my two months in Africa.
Starting with an inexpensive hostel on broken roads, I traveled down to the most unexpected lush green hills of the Lower Omo Valley to visit animal skin clad tribes (both hostile and friendly) and eventually returning to the logo and khaki clad lobby of the Hilton in Addis. Along the way, I spend a good amount of time with good-natured Ethiopian tour guides and learned the democratizing desire of middle class survival. Chapy broke my heart with his unhealed nightmares of the toughest childhood on the street, and as a solider fighting a war in Somalia. I drank honey wine with tribal guides and talked to them about their choices of leaving the tribal ways for a Western life; a choice between the community and the individual.
In Eastern Ethiopia, khat is chewed in profusion and the scenes unfolding in the city streets are closer to what I’ve come to associate with in Morocco, Egypt and other Arab nations, and not the popular imaginings of Africa.
Deeply imbedded in the ex-pat community in Rwanda, my liberal sensibility at first struggled with the brutal sense of separation between race and class. There are 10 foot walls with barb wires on top surrounding all the house of the “wealthy” and “white” neighborhoods; each compound complete with its own gatekeeper, night guard and household staff. How bourgeois! Except my liberal equality based socialism disappeared with the first loads of washing done for me, bed made daily and dishes cleaned immediately after. Life is easy when someone else attends to the daily housekeeping grind.
All the NGOs, UN, and International Aid organizations spends liberally on their personnel. Each driving a white Land Cruiser, living behind tall walls with their safety and possessions looked after by the locals. Despite what you may believe, if the do-gooders are doing any good, judging on appearances, it is easy to see how NGOs are the new colonialist.
Then there is the robbery homicide on the overnight bus traveling from Kigali to Kampala.
Darkness, desperation, brutality of the worst kind.
A bus full of locals and I am on the only foreigner. A man is shot dead in front of us and we’ve been robbed of everything. Except there are no hysterics from anyone on the bus. Each mutters “This is Africa” as mantra of acceptance or evidence of reality. This is just the way it is here. Life is cheap.
My sensibility always gets twisted into near outrage when the news reports the numbers of American deaths in specifics with emphasis yet gloss over military and civilian causalities of the opposition. Why is an American’s life worth more? A life is a life is a life. Except, in a land where the police are corrupt or toothless, the government does not put a premium of its citizens; life automatically becomes disposable. This is not a matter of politics but reality.
The collective is what matters in Africa, not the individual. We’ve been robbed of everything. A few had a couple of coins left in their pockets. None of us have eaten in hours. A man I’ve never spoken to before bought a pastry with the last of his money and offered to share it with me. Light and extremes.
There is no shortage of do-gooders in Africa. It is bursting at the seams with Peace Corp volunteers (a great PR effort from the US government), NGO founders, workers and volunteers, and consultants for various International Aid Agencies. Everyone has the same opinion. Aid is not working. Aid has created a culture of dependency. Unless the community is actively engaged and involved — from the well that is being dug, the school house being built or the co-op being set up — as soon as the foreigners leave, it all falls into dust. It stands abandoned, wasted, sitting idol for the next set of do-gooders to come along to create it anew again.
While on break, the young volunteers crawl out of the jungle, from their middle of no where mud huts, converge in the city for a few nights of partying or an adrenaline rush in extreme sports. The party scene in Kampala is a mixture of expats, young volunteers and older businessmen ready to carry away the wealth of the continent yet again. The Chinese are building roads and infrastructure in exchange for fishing rights, mineral extraction and or whatever clever scheme it can dream up. The start-ups are using Africa as testing ground for all sorts of ideas and innovation. The thinking behind is if it can work in Africa, it can work anywhere. Prostitution is common if not normal, and you wonder why preventable disease such as HIV/AIDS is still growing at an alarming rate.
In Kenya, I spend considerable time with the children of privileged Black Kenyans. Each one of their parents holds an important job, a big title. They are country club members; their house guarded by high walls, electric fence and their needs seen to by staff. The concern of these children raise in privilege is not any different than their blue-blooded counter part in the US or Europe. Class and wealth overrules race and culture in this particular incident.
My foreignness is constantly evident and felt, but it is not because there is hostility from the Africans but a fundamental difference in world-view. A life in the land of extremes, impermanence is the norm. Existential contemplation of god, our place in the world, the purpose of our lives and the meaning of it all is a luxury few could afford. Most Africans I encountered live for today only, as tomorrow is always an uncertainty. A perverse version of Carpe Diem.
The issue of color and language is ever more prominent in South Africa. Nearly 25 years after apartheid, the whites, blacks and colors are still deeply segregated from one another. The haves live in orderly neighborhoods, paved streets, safely behind tall walls; the have-nots lives in townships build out of scraps with little sanitation services. The whites speak in simple English to the blacks; all knowledge of how their kinsman lives is cursory or simply ignored and left unexplored.
In The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuściński talks about the limit of our language, “European language did not develop vocabularies adequate to describe non-Europeans worlds. Entire areas of African life remain unfathomed, untouched even, because of a certain European linguistic poverty.” Could this be the reason why we default to generalization and over simplistic caricature when it comes to Africa? A single identity for all 55 countries and 3000+ tribes.
There is no singular self to Africa. It does not conform to any one expectation, any one particular stereotype. It is all of those at once and defies it at the same time. It is not just the savannahs with the magnificent animals, or the jungle of the warlords, or the Swahili coast perfect for honeymoons, or first world Cape Town and the sharp contrast between the wealthy and poor. This is a land of magic. This is a place of great contradictions. From light to dark; life to death. All of it — This is Africa.