Commentary | Out of ‘Africa’

Three things you shouldn’t ask me about my time in South Africa

I took last semester off of school to travel. As should be expected, I’ve spent the better part of my first three weeks back fumbling to find the best way to summarize a six-month adventure into a digestible, two-sentence morsel for various friends and acquaintances who have asked me the token questions about ‘my trip’ since my return (and proceeded to feign at least 60 per cent of their interest in my response).

Token question number one is inevitably “where did you go?” to which I reply, “well, I spent the first three months in South Africa….” Usually, at this point, the tone of the conversation changes quite drastically; whereas before I may as well have been lecturing my dear listener on the effective ways of removing excessive earwax, now something has quite clearly piqued their interest.

The conversation that follows is generally a set of three predictable, depressing questions: depressing because implicit in these questions are unstated assumptions and unconscious ignorance that used to make me slightly uncomfortable, and now just leave me downright jaded. More verbosely, these questions are a product of our widespread cultural refusal to delve beyond the clichés.

Immediately, interest piqued, my dear listener lets slip a ‘wow’, ‘woah’, or ‘cool’. I do respect that people react positively to the idea of time spent in South Africa; at the very least, their interest shows a curiosity beyond their immediate surroundings.

The problem here is that I am often able to read undertones of surprise in this interjection. While the text is saying, ‘that’s really awesome’, the subtext reads, “Really? That’s not what I was expecting!’ This isn’t a negative thought, per se, but it betrays just how far the idea of ‘Africa’ is from our collective consciousness: we simply don’t pay it a lot of attention, so that when we are forced to, it feels foreign, exotic, and new.

Then comes question number one, perhaps even the worst of them all: “so how was Africa?”

Shit…seriously? There are 54 countries on the continent. I told you I went to one of them, and you want me to give you a rundown of the state of affairs in… Africa. If I told you I went to Thailand, would you ask me how I liked Asia? You either misheard me originally, or you have no conception of the sheer immensity of the landmass, and the enormous degree of diversity between and within its numerous regions and countries.

This is reductive thinking at its finest: ‘Africa’ is not a viable category of analysis, and yet we use it as such in both the vernacular and the academic. Whether you framed your question this way because you assume that all of Africa is pretty similar (you know, big red sunsets, a couple zebras, a broken-down minibus with a child soldier hanging out the side), or because you are conditioned to reference it on a continental level (remember Survivor: Africa?) is irrelevant. Please stop.

The second question is slightly more nuanced, but equally loaded with presumption. After I’ve attempted to delineate how I enjoyed my time in South Africa, which was very nice, thank you for asking, my dear listener slaps me to the tune of “so why did you decide to go there?”

Context: the second half of my trip was essentially the ‘classic’ European backpacking tour – yet not a single person I talked to asked for the reasoning behind my decision to visit a few European countries. You don’t need a reason to want to travel Europe, or at least the reason you would want to do so is too obvious to merit asking.

In juxtaposition, then, asking why I went to ‘Africa’ demonstrates a specific subtext, which might be dramatized as follows: “You must have had some purpose for being in Africa, right? I mean, nobody just goes there. I can’t think of a reason that someone would off the top of my head, anyway, so I have to ask…”

Perhaps they are wondering if I had gone to participate in some sort of volunteer project; as we all know, North Americans such as myself like to ‘help’ the Africans, because they need (and deserve!) our benevolence, and it’s not as if a well-documented 400-year history of Europeans screwing over other parts of the world through trying to ‘help’ them is enough of a deterrent to stop us from trying once more. Perhaps they’re wondering if I was going on a sort of adventure tour; those are popular because after all, Africa is a place of immense natural beauty, and what better way to ‘see’ Africa than to get driven all over the countryside with other tourists, stay in remote campsites, and go on nature walks. Either way, the implication is that unlike Europe, ‘Africa’ is a place you visit for a reason.

The third question I have come to expect is perhaps the easiest to answer, and also the easiest to critique: “Was it safe?” My answer: “Shut up.”

I fully understand why this question is so persistent. For many, the image of danger is closely tied to the image of ‘Africa’. The international media, knowing sensation is what sells, puts out almost exclusively pieces on suffering, corruption, or violence. To a certain extent, the danger is not false, and so I understand why it might seem a ‘dangerous’ place to travel.

Nonetheless, I do not understand why this assumption isn’t more readily criticized. What is presented in the media is not the reality of the entire continent. (We might even say it’s not the reality of any of the continent, but that’s a whole different can of worms.)

Quite simply, the automatic impulse to ask whether South Africa is ‘safe’ or not feels denigrating, evocative as it is of the historical, racist tropes of ‘dark’ and ‘savage’ Africa. While the concern itself is not entirely unfounded, why do we feel the need to ask? I’m standing right in front of you, dear listener, safe and sound.

I do not wish to express doubt as to my dear listeners’ intentions: on the surface, I sincerely believe that they were motivated to ask these questions by a healthy wish for successful small talk. I also believe, however, that it is crucial for us all to examine why we continue to grant ourselves permission to utilize these reductive and denigrating tropes in our dialogue about ‘Africa’. In the end, all it takes is a little knowledge, a little self-reflection, and a little awareness into the implications of what we say.

Benjamin Sher is a U2 History and African Studies student. You can reach him at benjamin.sher@mail.mcgill.ca.


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