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How to Travel to Africa Without Being Another Neocolonialist

Africa Insider Guides
by Richard Stupart Nov 29, 2014

WELCOME TO AFRICA. Or rather, welcome to South Africa/Kenya/Ethiopia/wherever. Because it isn’t — as we routinely try to point out — a country at all.

But that’s a cheap shot. You knew that of course.

Yet there might be some stuff you didn’t know. Or knew, but weren’t paying particular attention to. So here’s a primer on some of the basics when coming to South Africa/Kenya/Eth…. Sod it. Africa. You’re coming to Africa.

1. Learn to love buses.

Seriously. Unless you are traveling on a bed of dollars (immaculate, post-2006 ones if you’re going to Congo), you’d better learn to love buses. Anywhere worth going can be reached by a bus. Even places that buses should really not be able to reach. By buses that should really not be allowed to try.

There are a million kinds. There are air-conditioned ones that feed you en route — just like the Greyhound back home. They will pop up in obvious places like Johannesburg and Nairobi. And not-so-obvious places like Khartoum. There are the ratty, dangerous kind that will sway, have shitty seating, and begin the journey with prayers.

And finally, there will be the completely screwed, used-to-ferry-livestock (and you) variety. Many of these may not even look like buses. Giant roaring monsters with not a single redeeming feature except that they’ll get you to where you want to go, and you may be allowed to sit on top for parts of the journey.

2. Drop the heroic voluntourism.

Nobody takes a holiday to London and drops in at the local slum to voluntour a few hours of singing and dancing with the local kids there. (Those English, they just have such rhythm in their culture!) It would be strange and condescending, and a bad idea for a whole range of reasons.

So don’t do it.

If you’re actually traveling to wherever in order to do some well-planned, real development work (setting aside a massive academic debate for a moment), then fine. If you’re coming for an adventure and would like to briefly get your Clooney on, please refrain. We’d much prefer it if you concentrated on having fun.

Also — while we’re undermining your explorer/hero fantasy — no two-tone khaki explorer clothing. Only the game ranger gets to dress like a game ranger. The same goes for references to ‘African Time’ or saying ‘T.I.A.’ to other travelers with a knowing look. Yes, it is Africa. But the problem at hand is likely that you’re being impatient and irritating. There are words for people like that on the continent, but they’re mostly shorter than three syllables, and children might read this.

3. Don’t be scared. Most of us are the 99%.

Someone probably told you something about Africa being scary. Where “scary” may have ranged from casual references to “Nairobbery” or Joseph Conrad, to something about an RPG-toting teenaged pirate in sandals.

The pirates exist. And some of them do indeed wear sandals. Of those, a handful may even have earned their rocket propelled grenades. But they are a minority of perhaps a few dozen in a continent of a billion, and unless your travel operator has you scheduled for deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Aden, you will probably never meet any.

Conrad and being mugged in Nairobi — unless you’re intending to seek out specific places — are little more than exaggerated fantasies.

99% of the people you meet will be friendly, civil folk. I’m assured by a colleague just back from Mogadishu that it’s probably around 90% there. Perhaps 83.7% in Bokara market (where they shot the famous Black Hawk down). But I digress.

Point is, Africa doesn’t bite. For the most part, everyone wants the same things as anyone else their age. To send their kids to college. Drinks with friends. An iPhone. That kind of stuff.

Very few people — RPG-carrying or otherwise — are sitting and waiting to harm you. So be scared of all the friends you’ll make instead.

4. Learn some photographic etiquette.

There are some photos we wish you would stop being so obsessed with. Things like:

  • You hugging our kids. You carry diseases and look a little too much like Angelina Jolie, except you aren’t bringing colossal amounts of UN funding when you leave.
  • You pretending to be “ethnic” in a non-ironic way. Hair in cornrows. Pretending to pump water. Stirring my porridge while your accomplice goes crazy with the shutter. Imagine walking around in America wearing a cowboy hat and chaps non-stop. Wanting to have a hand in pouring beer and flipping burgers everywhere while your friends take pictures. Yeah. It’s weird in the same way.
  • Photos of livestock. Lions and wildebeests we understand. You don’t have any, and in their thousands, they’re pretty damn awesome. But a goat on the roadside? Donkeys eating trash? Have you never seen a farm animal before?
  • The sun. The glorious, incandescent, I-had-a-farm-in-Africa sun. Granted, it looks glorious through a telephoto lens on the savanna the first dozen times, but it’s about as original as the Cape Town skyline.

If you exercise your creativity a little, you’d be surprised how much else is possible. Your friends and family back home will thank you for bringing back an account of your journey that reads like something other than KONY2012 dating the Lion King.

5. Check your playlist.

As you’ll be on a bus a great deal (because you’re going to interesting places) a playlist will be important. If you intend filling it with “African” music, you may be eligible for an intervention. Music by Shakira, Toto, K’naan or Johnny Clegg means you require diversification therapy.

“Nwa Baby” or Amadou & Mariam are good starts. Then go to a music shop nearby and ask what’s popular at the moment. You might find some gems.

You might. You might also hate it. Some places give national acclaim to truly terrible artists. But you won’t know unless you’re willing to give it a try. Kind of like visiting the continent in the first place.

White people from up north were busy for a very long time, wreaking the destruction that extracted slaves and built London and Brussels.
6. Read some history.

Particularly if you’re European. Your forebears had a description-defyingly-large impact on the continent. The Italians massacred the Ethiopians. The Germans annihilated the Herero in Namibia in the first genocide of the twentieth century. The English built concentration camps in Kenya and South Africa, to complement the bloody activities that Rhodes and Kitchener were up to at various points. Don’t even get me started on France or Portugal.

Or, God forbid, the Belgians.

The point is that white people from up north were busy for a very long time, wreaking the destruction that extracted slaves and built London and Brussels. Yet for all the profound histories that various African countries have, too few visiting foreigners have the slightest clue of them.

At best, it’s a little disrespectful and really deprives you of a rich understanding of the place (would you visit Germany knowing nothing of the Cold War or the Nazis?) At worst, it leaves you looking like an idiot when you metaphorically return “home” to Africa by flying into Cape Town. If you think you metaphorically “left” in the slave trade, you should be flying to somewhere in West Africa. If you’re speaking in terms of the exodus of ancient man, you probably want to go to Kenya or Ethiopia. Or Johannesburg.

So, history is important. For both of us. Us, because you pretty much took a giant historic sledgehammer to it. You, because it will make travel so much richer than animal spotting and faux-humanitarian photography (see above). Did you know there are pyramids in Northern Sudan? Or that Portugal sent soldiers to Ethiopia centuries ago to help their emperor in a holy war? And that the castles of said emperor remain in Gonder to this day?

Now you know. And Ethiopia and Sudan just became a world more interesting because of it.

* * *
I’m so glad we got all that out of the way. Things should be so much less awkward now. Let’s hug. This article was originally published on October 11th, 2012.

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