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.