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Travel Illusion: The Awkward African Diptych

Kenya Travel
by Richard Stupart Sep 23, 2011
Is it funnier because it’s true?

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA once wrote a little piece for Granta magazine, titled How not to write about Africa. It would turn out to be one of the most popular pieces the magazine ever published. It’s as sarcastic as it is perfectly executed, and if you haven’t watched it before, take a peek below.

And when you have finished watching, and can’t possibly believe that anyone would be so silly as to fall into these traps, take a gander at this pearlescent gem of a video from Robin Wiszowaty. Author, white Maasai, and knower of fundamental truths African.

There seems little doubt that Robin truly believes in the things she saw, and the sacredness of the experience that she had in Kenya. Yet there is equally little doubt that her impressions of the place, and reduction of the people to props around her own story of ‘discovery’ fall into a great many of the traps that Wainaina rails against.

It’s more than a failure of vocabulary, or a reductive approach to describing – it almost feels like a caricaturing process of experiencing. One where things are new and novel up until they can be assimilated into a story in which I am the hero, and I am able to progress towards my own enlightenment through the simple and unproblematic assistance of local support characters.

The world isn’t like this. People don’t exist to one-dimensionally facilitate my journey of discovery any more than I exist solely to facilitate theirs. Lived experience – and particularly lived experience in foreign surroundings – is absolutely dripping with fine detail and contradiction.

Yet – even if not to Wiszowatian levels of delusion – I’ve often failed to think of a journey as a story beyond my own self-involvement. It’s hard, sometimes, to look past the world where you get to be a hero in a foreign land. But it’s perhaps the non-negotiable first step in really starting to see your surroundings.

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