Is this Africa?
It is my first time in the continent of Africa.
I am distinctly aware, after listening to Ndaba Mandela speak about Africa Rising at the 2013 TEDxTeen conference, that there is a great more to Africa than the generalized discourse in media of diseased children with protruding bellies, broken governments and infrastructures and people swamped in poverty. I know, too, that Africa is made of 54 countries and over 2000 languages and that I cannot name them all. In the West and in the East, we treat Africa as one continent, in a way that we do not with the Europe or Asia. There is recognition that Malaysia differs greatly from Japan and that Spain is distinct from Bosnia. We give these countries the right to be individual, to own their unique cultural, linguistic and historical personalities; it is a right that is withheld from Africa. Africa is not a country. Yet, why do we treat it as such - as if we can address it broadly and sweepingly? It is with this in mind that I fly into Tanzania to spend two weeks, a brief effort to grasp what this small piece of this giant and complex continent is all about.
My first impressions are of hustlers, who at the sight of our bus coming to a stop in front of a currency exchange center, ready their racks of sports jerseys, woven bracelets in Rasta colors and wooden masks. They push forward, joking and smiling with an undertone of aggression, insisting at the authenticity of their obviously manufactured and cloned wares. The second is of a delectable, juice-dribbling-down-the-chin mango bought at a stall made of a few wooden planks and crooked nails for 20¢. The third is a heart-stopper - my first time seeing a rhino, an animal that for many reasons I'll leave explaining to a later date represents to me my grandfather - who chose the rhino to rebrand our family's long-withstanding textile company - and my heritage. My head popping out of the open roof of our safari Jeep, my hand over my agape jaw and my eyes huge, I hear none of the laughs and hoots around me. Instead, I feel the slow, steady movements of this rhino as he crossed the road in front of our line of Jeeps; I feel the presence of history, of a time when there were more rhinos than cars, of a time when my grandfather was alive.
The last is a visit on the way out of the Serengeti to the home of a Maasai tribe. I am confronted strongly with the notion that tourism can provide economic life and cultural death. There are model tents within which are members of the Maasai and reconstructions of how they might have used these tents several decades ago. They wear their traditional clothing, dark purples, reds and blues draped around the body. The women have cropped hair; some have completely shaven heads. The younger boys wear loincloths. In a massive circle in the middle of this reconstructed village are baskets and baskets of handmade bracelets, selling for $15 each - that's seventy-five mangoes. I expected authenticity, but instead I am handed photo opportunities, a naive tourist's Kodak moment.
In history textbooks of high school curriculums and literature selections in English class, Africa is generalized and excluded. Africa is ignored. Why do we know and learn so much about England and America and so little about Kenya, Senegal, Zambia? We often learn about Africa in the context of the West; Italian Mussolini's aggression in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia); British control of the Suez Canal in conflict with Egypt; the Belgian and CIA role in the assassination of Congolese premier Patrice Lumumba.
I don't know where to start in understanding Africa and all of its many parts. I certainly don't want to do it in a way that validates African narratives only if the West is impacted. Over the last two weeks, I have thought of my own privilege as a well-educated, well-fed and loved person and I question my right to be here seeking an authentic experience among a people historically marginalized. Yesterday, an article arrived in my Inbox, forwarded from a friend, written by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about access to electricity in Abuja. These are the narratives that are shaping and changing our archaic view of Africa as backwards, slow, illiterate and starving. It is not my place to redefine and validate Africa - that is up to the citizens of African countries. But it is in my capacity as a traveler to re-empower these stories and to listen. ♦