When travelling to a new place, we carry with us our ignorance and our expectations, both of which are built upon stories — or a lack thereof. When I moved from Zimbabwe to France at age 14, my new life was filled with people that found the idea of me and where I came from as intangible as I had found the thought of them. I watched people come up against the limits of their own imaginations when confronted with the fact that I am from Zimbabwe — that I’m white and I’m from Zimbabwe. That there are places with names they’d never heard of. That an African country can have such a good education system that one of its offspring can sit exams in a second language and still do better than French children.
And so, I lived for years as an anomaly — a blank space on the map that very few were curious enough to ask about.
If my immigrant experience taught me anything, it’s that there aren’t enough stories about African countries. Most of the people I met in Europe had little to no frame of reference with which to imagine me or my past, and those that had something to chalk me up against were usually misguided.
Stories are everywhere — in documentaries, films, news broadcasts, cartoon strips, music videos and more. They’re what makes us expect romance in France, margaritas in Mexico, and spiritual awakening in India. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in a now famous TED Talk entitled The Danger of a Single Story, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Stories have the power to compound a flat stereotype, or they can teach us about Parisian HIV/AIDS activists in the 90s, the dark underbelly of the cowboy myth, or the plight of widows in India. The problem is, David Attenborough, The Lion King, Fox News, Tintin and Taylor Swift aren’t necessarily good reference points for a complete or accurate story of Africa.
Here are a handful of misguided beliefs commonly held by people travelling to “The Dark Continent”:
1. I’m going to Africa!
Actually, you’re going to one (or several) of its 54 countries. Africa is a continent, not a country. In fact, people have been trying to make this point for so long that there’s an online magazine dedicated to challenging, “the received media wisdoms about Africa”, that goes by the (deeply ironic) name of Africa is a Country. Attune your ear to it, and soon you’ll hear everyone from news broadcasters to yourself using the term “Africa” and “African” when it would actually be more appropriate to name the specific country the movie was shot in, or the nationality of the athlete that just won gold. And by “specific” I don’t mean going out on a limb like Trump did when he invented Nambia, a non-existent African country.
Africa is truly enormous. The surface area of the African continent is so large that it could swallow up China, the USA, India, Mexico, Peru, France, Spain, Papua New Guinea, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Norway, Italy, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Nepal, Bangladesh and Greece, and still have room to spare.
With so many countries, so much land, and an estimated population of 1.2 billion people, Africa is not one thing. It is so geographically, ethnically, historically, socially and politically diverse, that it’s crazy I’m even attempting to write an article about it.
2. Maybe I’ll learn some African while I’m there!
Nigeria alone has over 500 languages. Across the continent, thousands upon thousands of different languages and dialects are spoken and they range from indigenous languages to Indo-European, Afroasiatic and Austronesian languages (brought to the continent through migration and colonization).
Suffice to say there’s no such language as “African”. So, let’s be accurate here; Maybe you’ll pick up some Arabic in Tunisia, or you can brush up on your irregular French verbs in Mali, learn a Swahili greeting in Kenya, or practice your Xhosa clicks in South Africa.
3. This is gonna be some next level Out of Africa shit!
The Karen Blixen fantasy is real. Even Taylor Swift got in on that romanticized version of colonial Africa in her music video for Wildest Dreams. Seen through that prism, Africa becomes a borderless, unintelligible mass where savage beasts and jaw-dropping landscapes are the stage on which a wild white love affair can play out. Note that this fantasy doesn’t even hint at the real people upon whose shoulders all of that vintage elegance was built.
Before you go ahead and buy a pith helmet, just keep in mind that Africa is full of people living out their own local love affairs, comedies, tragedies and mundane stories. You’re first and foremost a guest in their narratives.
4. AHHHHHHHHH ZABENYA!
Yes, The Lion King was the cornerstone of many of our childhood VHS collections, and yes, David Attenborough and the BBC have done a phenomenal job of bringing the sheer wonder of Africa’s wildlife to our TV screens, but have you ever noticed that African animals have been graced with considerably more emotional depth and airtime than any of the people that live on the continent? Binyavanga Wainaina speaks about this imbalance of empathy in his sharp-tongued piece “How to Write About Africa”:
“Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions, and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).”
I’m not for a second questioning the life-altering experience of being amongst truly wild creatures, but I think it’s worth asking yourself if you’re as interested in the people you’re going to meet as you are in the animals.
5. I can’t wait to ride an elephant!
In the name of protecting wildlife, conservationists have appealed to our hearts by inviting us into the fascinating and wondrous lives of charismatic animals, but just because these stunning creatures have become familiar to us, have made us feel passionate enough to fundraise for them, and have even led us to shed the occasional mid-documentary tear, doesn’t mean they owe us a thing.
So — let’s get a few things straight:
- If you’re going down the Zambezi river in a canoe, you are officially part of the food chain and should behave accordingly, i.e. by listening to your guide.
- No matter how cute the animal, they should in no way shape or form be touched or fed unless you’ve been told it’s safe to do so by a professional.
- Even typically kind-natured animals can kill you.
- When in a National Park or wild area, your mere presence is invasive. It’s not your home. They’re not your rules. Be humble enough to admit that you might not know best. Be considerate. Speak softly. Don’t take or leave anything. Maybe put your camera down and just watch in silence for a while.
It all boils down to respect. Open your average safari brochure and you’re sure to find any number of buzz words like “wild”, “primitive”, “untamed”. It’s not so much the words themselves that are the problem, but the spirit in which they’re used. If you’re lucky enough to travel to some of the remaining pockets of wilderness left on this planet, you’re not being handed a pre-packaged, consumable, or some easy-to-digest dose of The Heart of Darkness. You’re being given a gift.
As Dr. Ian Player, the ex-Senior Warden of the iMfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, puts it, “this is (our) original home.” It is in this kind of environment that man evolved. “We carry Africa within us. It’s part of our psyche.” For Player, “Wilderness is the original cathedral, the original temple, the original church of life.”
Let’s treat it as such.
6. OMG! I totally want to try all the weird AF food!
Let me guess, you’re on a mission to blow your Youtube views sky-high with a GoPro compilation of you eating the “grossest stuff ever” while on your Great African Adventure. Oh, and you’ll do it without flinching, ‘cause — you know — You’re a boss-ass explorer like that.
Now don’t get me wrong, every place has its own culinary specialties, and you totally could get your hands on some mopane worms, giant bullfrog, or walkie talkies, but you’d actually have a much easier time ordering KFC.
Drop the sensationalism. Discovering another country’s culture should be like reading a novel, not a tabloid headline. This isn’t King Solomon’s Mines and you’re not going to be thrown into a giant cauldron to be cooked alive like Sharon Stone. Rather than going for the shock factor, why not get stoked about tasting couscous and tagine, or groundnut stew, fried plantains, sadza ne nyama or injera?
7. Will I have to wash in a waterfall?
As much as there are lions, rainforests, and tarantulas in Africa, there are also traffic jams, skyscrapers, and Wi-Fi. In the same way that rural Missouri is radically different from downtown L.A, so too are the farthest reaches of the Bauchi region to Lagos. While you could feel transported back in time by paddling down sections of the Niger river in Mali; a visit to the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town could propel you into the future.
To put things into perspective, here are some interesting facts which we don’t usually see reflected in Western media:
- 7 of the 10 world’s fastest growing economies are African.
- The continent already has more middle-class consumers than India, which has a larger population.
- The African Development Bank projected that by 2030 much of Africa will attain lower-middle and middle-class majorities.
- Today almost 40% of Africans live in cities (yet we typically encounter few urban images from Africa).
So, it is extremely unlikely that you will have to wash in a waterfall, see lions prowling through the streets, or have to hunt impala for dinner.
8. I can just tell I’m going to make a real difference!
Wanting to be a conscientious traveler and engage in positive change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but too often people’s dreams of working at a wild animal orphanage, or volunteering to build missionary schools are part of a fantasy not unlike the Karen Blixen one described in point three.
Binyavanga Wainaina points out in “How to Write About Africa“ that the continent is locked in an unfortunate triptych of either being “pitied, worshipped, or dominated.” It would seem the world is largely incapable of relating to Africa outside of these modes, and all three can be dangerous and reductive.
Most issues faced by African countries today are the result of colonization. The wounds of history run deep. As this article in The Guardian points out, “The dominant narratives about Africa in western writing and media still carry echoes of colonialism, commonly portraying the western visitor as a benevolent saviour and denying those who actually live there any agency in the process.” It would be arrogant and patronizing to imagine that the very people that brought such political, racial, and economic hardship to a place could be the ones to magic it away. It’s the same attitude that makes food aid and the global altruism business problematic. The nature and cause of suffering are usually so complex that nothing short of systemic policy change could really make a difference.
By all means, help green the townships of Cape Town, cook and care for orphans in Ghana, nurse a Bush Baby back to health in Kenya, but rather than convince yourself that you are part of some reality-altering change, or harbour an inflated sense of what you have to offer, never forget that, as a traveler, you’re a taker. Value the ways in which the experience will change you.