This is not a cliché reflection piece about how Africa made me realize I should be grateful for what I have. That approach to Africa is patronizing and unwelcome. Deprivation is just one of Africa’s many lessons and not necessarily one that needs to be revisited.
While Africa’s portrayal in the international media is problematic and unbalanced, Africa taught me that I should even double guess my own take. This trip gave me time and experience to redress how I interact with, understand, and portray the world I travel through.
My first day in Kampala left me thinking the Ugandan capital was hell on earth. I was staying in Makere Slum. I didn’t have access to electricity or clean water. Restaurants had no food. Children walked around naked. The streets were mud sinks and puddles and garbage heaps. My mattress was infested with bed bugs. Even when I went to other parts of the city, I saw nothing but chaos and entropy.
I left Kampala for two days for Lake Victoria. When I came back, I stayed with a young couple in an affluent suburb. They showed me luxury malls, modern nightlife, art venues, and a contemporary lifestyle. That Kampala could have been Dubai.
Both Kampala experiences were facilitated by couchsurfing and yet neither alone would have given me an accurate idea of what Kampala is about. What could one know when he has only one of those experiences and not the other?
My time in Africa was littered with such double takes. I met a Dutch couple in Zambia who told me they found Namibians hostile and unfriendly, which I found baffling given my own experiences there. How could they have had such a different experience? A Swedish backpacker in Namibia warned me that Botswanans are cold, though I was quite certain they were the warmest people on earth once I visited. Finally, in Tanzania I realized I was wrong to trust the account of an American blogger who claimed that locals were exceedingly hostile, rude, and unfriendly. If she knew a bit of Swahili, she probably would have realized the locals were innocuously welcoming her, though in a tone and demeanor that in a western context signals aggression.
All of these people invented narratives to explain what they experienced that entirely contradicted my own. And do I not do the same? Should I not humbly revise my narratives of Bolivia, India, and Czechia?
The lesson is this: The transient backpacker knows very little, and his narratives are sloppy and incomplete. He should live somewhere if he wants to know somewhere, or else listen to someone who does.
On Being Quiet
I recently read a twitter thread that explained that white folks are conditioned to believe that their voices always matter, that their input is always welcome, and that they should speak up when they know better. The OP urges white people to stop talking and just listen more, even when the other person is wrong.
This idea resonated with me a lot in Africa. Hitchiking and couchsurfing with the local people exposed me to stories about local life, cultures, politics, and international affairs that I found fascinating but also sometimes questionable. I have a sketpical, fact-finding ENTP personality, so I tend to value objective stories over emotion-driven ones, and my instinct normally is to challenge narratives that seem naïve or uninformed. But I shouldn’t.
I met an outspoken local guy in a bar beside Lake Malawi who, in a broader point about how differently black people and white people are treated by the world, asked wether I thought, as a white person, I would ever be stopped or harassed by the police anywhere in the world.
For him, the question was a hypothetical, and the answer was no. I explained to him that, yes, the police constantly stopped me and harassed me in Southern Africa as well as in certain parts of Indonesia and Xinjiang Province, China, where I was racially (mis)profiled as someone of the persecuted Uigher minority. When I brought these experiences up, he denied and negated them and claimed to know more about China and Namibia than me, though he had never visited either. Soon he was bracing for a fist fight (???) because apparently that was the kind of mood he was in.
What did I learn from this conversation? Firstly, I realized how annoying and counterproductive it is to trivialize others’ experiences and talk over them. This is something I think white people, myself included, do a lot, though in this situation the dynamic was reversed.
Secondly, I could have answered his question differently and should in the future. The broader point he was trying to make about the world being unkind to black people was, of course, valid. When he asked whether police would ever harass me, a more appropriate response on my part would have been “not so often” or “not nearly as much as if I were black.” I should have taken a harmonizing approach instead of allowing the ENTP in me to disrupt his narrative and distract from his main point. In effect, I was talking over him.
Objective stories don’t always win, and they don’t always need to. I did not challenge the South African farmer who explained drought as a punishment from God; the Ugandan paramedic who insisted that “night-dancer” zombies roam Uganda at night; nor the Namibian intellectual who thought booting foreign corporations was a sound development policy.
In essence, I was learning how to shut the f*ck up.