Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Everyone thinks they own Africa.

First it was the colonists, then it was the Africans themselves (for it was we who taught them the idea of “ownership” in the first place) and now it’s the donor agencies, Peace Corp volunteers, travel-writers and Diaspora communities. Each group lays claim to the fact that their experience is the true experience; they understand the true essence of Africa. They know how Africa works.

We all do it. We all carve it up and take it away in little chunks, marketing it as validity in empirical form to our friends and family back home. We pander to church groups and editors, professors and politicians – yes, yes, this was My Africa. This is what it was – why don’t you hear, feel, taste, smell, touch, grade, evaluate, process, examine, scrutinize, accept, buy what I have brought back for you.

Put two Afrophiles in a room and watch the game of one-up man ship. You ate goat? I ate snake. You got scabies? I had gout. You broke your wrist? I was in a monkey knife fight. You rode a matola across the Serengeti? I pulled an oxcart. You lived there for ten years? I lived there for twenty. You married a local? I married three.

This territoriality – this fight for proof of capturing the “genuine” Africa is nearly impossible to overcome, even when you are the one doing it. On a personal level, this ranges from merely annoying to mind-bendingly frustrating (great, good luck with your three wives). On a professional level, of course, it can get downright dangerous.

I pretty much expect that everyone I know has had a more “genuine” experience than I have. In fact, I lay no claim to ever having an Africa experience in the first place. I concede; you win. You’ve interviewed more people (probably knew what you were doing when you did it, too), you ask better questions, you have been to more countries, you live in the village, you speak more languages, you eat goat, you like it.

I will not marry a local. I will not live here for ten years. I hobble to hospital when I sprain my ankle in a drunken wrestling match. I steer clear of the snake. And while I have tremendous guilt for this, I cannot change who I am.

Too many things have been taken from Africa. Too much gold, too many people, too many carvings, too many reports, program designs, project evaluations and power point presentations. And really, they are all genuine in their own way. I mean, come on, Africa has strip malls, too.

I have a resolve to bring. But in casting around, the only thing that I can bring is myself; a woman who likes hot water and dances “like a black woman” (true story, I was actually told this. I don’t know if it’s true or just the best pick up line ever); someone who hates rain spiders and only reads English; someone who makes faces at little kids to get them to smile; someone who has absolutely no talent except laughing at the wrong moments and arguing with government officials.

I guess my point is that there is nothing that is mine, there is nothing that I will bring back. By all accounts of those Afrophiles, this experience is not genuine, or the true Africa.

But it is there and so am I.


Rose Connors said...

It wouldn't be Africa if it could really be owned, would it? Sometimes I think genuine is something that you can't classify. I like your line of thinking. I've seldom wanted somthing that everyone else already had.

Anonymous said...

Although Africa can ultimately never be owned, the cheap touristy crap they sell at the airport sure can, and I'm expecting some serious souveniers!

nate-nate-bo-bate said...

Let me tell you about MY Africa story...
I knew a guy in college who was from Africa. He was pretty cool.

So, yeah, I totally hear you.

Actually, having no personal experience with Africa (aside from that guy I knew) the one thing that i think of when I think of Africa is a documentary that I watched called "Guns, Germs and Steel." It's based on a book by Jared Diamond, a geology professor at UCLA.

In the documentary, he goes to Africa and visits some of the hospitals there. Up to this point, he has been the stoic voice of reason, tell you why things are how they are in a very cut and dry fashion. But, standing in that hospital, talking to a nurse who is telling him that thousands die every day and that most of them are children who never really had a chance in the first place, he breaks down and starts bawling. Just loses it. In the face of such a horrible fact, honestly, who wouldn't?

So, the very first thing that pops into my head is the image of this aged, respectable, professor-type authority figure breaking down and crying because he couldn't handle the sheer horror of what these people live with.

I think that if more of us had an "Africa Experience" more like that, we'd maybe be more motivated on a moral and ethical level to do something about it.

emira said...

This thing we call Africa does not exist. Words can rarely capture the richness of human experience, especially the one that is not our own. What I mean by that, being a snooty anthropologist and all, is that we can rarely explain that which we see from the eyes that have been trained to see something completely different.

The problem is not in whether or not you can bring anything back, even things inside your head, the problem is that you will have a hard time conveying it to others. Of course nothing can be owned, especially not people and entire lands, but what you can have to keep are memories; and that my fried is not something you own but something you were given by the places you visited and people you met.

There is no Africa, no one large, homogeneous place that we can visit--whether as tourists, ex-pats or US AID interns--and talk about as something we know. All that we can do is talk about how one time we took a chance and stepped out of our comfort zone to make a difference in our lives; and to satisfy our passion for the world with all its beauty, charm and unfamiliarity.

Megan said...

Here in CPE talk, we call it "ministering out of your whole self". It means being aware of who you are and why in the fullest, deepest sense - so for me, what is 'me' is comprised of this mess of Lutheran-pageant-small town-liberal arts-middle child stuff that I separate out, put back together, and own.

You, my dear friend, are living out of your whole self. Everything you are lets you do what you do, and there is nothing to be ashamed about there. So you're no first-rate Afrophile. So what? You are you, and you're damned good at it, and who you are helps you do what you do and love what you love. So live it fully, girl. Get your whole self into it.

Good God, I learned something from CPE.