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Africa Saviour

by Christopher Clark / Images by Samora Chapman / 27.03.2014

I’ve been living and traveling in various parts of Africa for four years now, predominantly South Africa and Kenya.

In my experience, many of the Africans (including white South Africans) I have come across, initially perceive us western travelers as one of two types of tourist. Either we are the ‘I want to save Africa’ type – we are here to throw money at problems, sing religious songs with people who haven’t eaten for months and make them clap their hands; or we are the ‘I want Africa to save me’ type – we want to find ourselves, get in touch with our roots or learn something revelatory about the world by having sex with a black African.

Or sometimes we can be both and no one quite knows where one ends and the other begins.

Though we might take offense to such sweeping stereotypes, stereotypes do at least sometimes come from experience. I have to admit, I have seen so many Western tourists traveling in Africa flawlessly performing the stereotypes mentioned above.

With regards to the ‘I want Africa to save me’ type, I’ve seen things get pretty ugly all too often. There will be African drum circles, there will be bare feet, corn rows and braids with burnt pink scalps showing through; there will be cringe-worthy photos with rural Africans who don’t really mean it when they call you “brother” or “sister”, who are only smiling and putting their arm around you because they are hoping that soon you might give them a bit of money for their time and then piss off and leave them in peace. They have learnt this from experience.

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Before continuing, I should perhaps note here that it’s not only white folk who are guilty of seeing the whole continent of Africa as some sort of one-size-fits-all magic cape that you can just throw on and suddenly feel like you have discovered Who You Really Are. I once met a young African American guy in Cape Town who told me, with a beaming smile and an enlightened light in his eyes, that it felt “so right” being back “home”. I guessed he had been reading a little too much Marcus Garvey and not looking at enough world maps.

I should probably also add that I am not just passing judgement from a pedestal or trying to exonerate myself entirely from bad western stereotypes. I’ll admit that when I first moved to South Africa back in 2008, I wore a lot of cowry shells and sometimes talked about Africa as if it was all one country. I sometimes even went so far as to talk about the ‘real’ Africa without considering, if such a place existed, what an ‘unreal’ Africa might be.
Like many others, I came to the African continent with a certain expectation that something truly revelatory might jump out of the red African earth and slap me square in the face, though I was unsure what exactly. Where did it all stem from, this sense that Africa is somehow like that old guy in the white suit in the Matrix who finally tells Neo what it all means, where it all started?

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That’s a heavy cross for anyone (or place) to bear, and at the same time it’s pretty unrealistic to imagine that a billion people and 55 countries can all find a space to help carry that weight. Surely that’s a prime case of too many cooks spoiling the nyama choma. And did we think to stop and ask if anyone actually particularly wanted to carry that weight in the first place?

There is also a huge contradiction between those throwing this huge weight of expectation on Africa on the one hand, and the many other Western brothers and sisters sojourning on the continent telling Africa that we can smooth away its poverty and hardships, like a sort of Mr Myagi “wax on, wax off” routine. Or again, sometimes these people are somehow one and the same. Whatever the case, South Africa has become the volunteering capital of the world, closely followed by a host of other African countries where you can get hot water, bagels, and good wireless connections, but still find plenty of impoverished but smiley black kids to hold up for selfies.

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The worst part is that through this current trend of White Saviour tourism, those that think they are doing the saving, put a similar burden of expectation on themselves as do those who feel they need saving.

This all too often goes to people’s heads and they breeze in without really knowing the score and bravely build basketball courts for the youth in Namibia without considering the fact that only about three people in Namibia play basketball. Or they help hook up a new piece of expensive medical equipment in a poor hospital in Kenya where no one has enough training to use the machine. Then they bugger off home again and say how ungrateful the Africans (not Namibians) are when they rip off the basketball hoops to sell as scrap metal so they can put food on the table, or they shake their heads and mutter “T.I.A” (This is Africa), like Danny Archer does in his really bad ‘Rhodesian’ accent in the film Blood Diamond, when he finds out that the expensive medical equipment in Kenya is being used as a coffee table.

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I don’t mean to preach or to presume that I am some kind of expert on the African Question. But I’ve had a long time to think about this stuff and increasingly feel that it’s time I share some of my thoughts with whoever might be bored enough to listen. After all, I’ve been working and traveling as a journalist all over Southern Africa as well as large parts of East and Central Africa for the past five years now. I also spent three years studying contemporary African literature and teaching a course in South African media at the University of Cape Town. And I have had a grueling one-and-a-half year education from my fast-tongued and politically fiery black South African girlfriend to boot.

Nevertheless, my own vague and scattered motivations for choosing to live, work and travel on the African continent remain, even now, difficult to crystalise or articulate sometimes. As do my sentiments about being a white western male in a (contrary to popular myth) fast-evolving and increasingly modernized Africa. A place still struggling to throw off the shackles of old stereotypes (those it projects and those by which it is perceived.) It’s all too intricate. The different racial, sexual and contextual dynamics, dichotomies, disparities and divergences are too complex to unravel. And I’m wary of turning out to be just as self-righteous and ethnocentric as so many of the others that come here. Even the fact that I am writing this in the first place tells me that I probably am.

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Even with the years of “African experience” now under my belt, I am still not altogether guilt-free when it comes to expecting answers from Africa, expecting it to tell me something significant about either its own enigma or life in general. I don’t think, after all, that I can claim to be completely impervious to the myth-making and what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie calls the “single story” of the African continent that has seeped into so much of the West’s cultural output pretty much since such a thing existed.

But beyond any wishy-washy idea of what Africa “is” or why it is so, or what I might be able to do to leave my mark on it,  I suppose I’m more interested in the quest for something that is universal. Or at least transnational about the notion and import of ethnicity as a thing that evolved from, and continues to have, an inherent relationship with Africa. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that what I really want is to “understand” something both universal and yet individually specific about myself but by using the sweeping brushstrokes of ethnicity and Africa as proxies.

I guess some people might try and boil this all down to a bland ‘self’ and ‘other’ flavoured sauce – the recipe is that the self can only truly be understood when confronted with its other. Well, to some extent, maybe it really is as simple as that.

But who the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ are in this case, is more fluid than in some instances. Adichie, who is based in the US, has said she only started to feel black or African, or think about what those two words really meant, when she moved to America. Has she come to see the black Africanness of her ‘self’ only now in contrast to the Western/American ‘other’? Or is she the peripheral black African ‘other’ that traditionally skulks around the fringes of the Western literary canon and metropolitan culture, as projected upon her by the contemporary Western/American society that she suddenly finds herself in? Maybe it’s a bit of both, and it’s probably a pretty fruitless task trying to figure out where one ends and the other begins.

Wherever the lines are drawn or crossed,  I can say with some assurance that, a little like Adichie only in reverse, I had never really, deeply, thought about what it meant to be white and English until I moved to Cape Town, and then even more so when I started traveling through the various other parts of Africa that I have come to know pretty well.

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Suddenly, whether I liked it or not, my race and nationality were somehow the most important (and sometimes the only) markers of my identity in so many situations, and I had to carry them around like a couple of bulky suitcases filled with historical context; a historical context that told the Africans that I, as a white Englishman, was undoubtedly in Africa because I felt that either they or I needed ‘saving’ in some way. Or we both did.

I’m still carrying those suitcases today, however much I might want to believe that all that’s inside them is someone else’s ill-fitting clothing. I guess I’m still trying to figure out what else I can wear, how else I can project myself without being too outlandish or potentially seeming like I’m overcompensating for something. A lot of people don’t seem to want me to be different. Well-established stereotypes are easier for all of us to deal with. It works both ways.  Nonetheless, I still don’t think I’ll be heading home and unpacking anytime soon. I’m still trying to decide how it all makes me ‘feel’ first. I might never get there. I also just really like the climate.

Images © Samora Chapman

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RESPONSES (4)
  1. cnut says:

    All I read was I, I, I and my I!!!

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  2. carissa says:

    Chris! so good to see your work on (in?) Mahala. This is a great piece that pretty much sums up my undergrad majors of english lit and anthro. Waiting in anticipation for part two (and three, four, five… you get the point)

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  3. john doe says:

    insightful piece and pretty funny and familiar in parts. Me likey . . .

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  4. Blue Mess says:

    I meant to read this but the incomplete ‘e’s are annoying. Just in case you’re considering them for future articles. Pleasure.

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