TIA Tales – Expectations of Africa
This week is election week in Kenya and it’s hard for any of us who were there last time not to think about the terrible time so many people suffered during the previous election. But I don’t think of the scary moments. What I remember from last time is how furious I was about the many misrepresentations. How the media seemed determined to present the country as a war zone and a slum. Why? Perhaps it’s simply because that’s what people think of when they think of Africa. Let’s give the people what they want they think. But why perpetuate the misunderstandings?
In preparation for this election I have seen ex-students of mine commenting on FaceBook about how frustrating they are finding media footage that insists on showing Nairobi’s slums, not its high rise buildings, beautiful hotels, modern shopping complexes or first world business district.
So it got me thinking… about people’s misplaced expectations of this hugely misunderstood continent. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to understand it either. Heck, I don’t even think I understand England. But there are some things that are obvious to anyone who has been here, and which provide a great source of TIA Tales humour when they are completely missed by those who have not.
For a start, I recently tried to write a feature for an American travel magazine. “A piece on Safari in the African bush?” they cooed at first. “That sounds exciting!” It all started so well! But then they wanted me to fit their standard feature format – each section was to be no longer than 50 words and must have a picture to go with it. OK, I thought, short attention spans I can handle (sorry to all you US readers who’ve so far read 289 words and don’t fit this stereotype at all!!). Then they gave me the section headers, which included: where to eat – on safari if you don’t eat at your accommodation you’d be moving around the park in the dark which is neither safe nor legal so there are no choices, and evening entertainment – well you might get some Maasai dancing (with a really bad rendition of Jambo Bwana if you’re very unlucky!), but there isn’t exactly a programme of entertainment. If you aren’t happy with listening to the sounds of the bush, looking at the stars and talking then there’s always reading a book I guess! When I tried to explain that these sections didn’t quite fit with the safari experience… they pulled the feature! They just could not conceive of a place without a selection of restaurants and evening entertainment!
Even people who should know better find it hard to really imagine being here though. Take the examiners for the International exams. They’re set by educators in the UK under the remit of the British Curriculum and twice I’ve had major problems. Once in an exam for the youngest students I taught, where the writer described a snow storm – not only had these children never seen snow, but they also have no concept of the weather vocabulary employed to describe it. Here our weather is either ‘hot’ or ‘wet’ there really is very little else, they do not need a thousand extra words (blizzard, flake, flurry, squall, chill etc) to describe the wide and infinitesimal adjustments in the weather!
But the one that really annoyed me, was a SAT paper with a ‘read and respond’ section about the school cafeteria and vending machines. Only one child in the class knew what one was. It simply wasn’t a fair test of their English skills.
Even my friends – you know who you are! – make insane comments about me living here. When I first moved it was things like ‘will there be lions in your garden’ or ‘will you live in a mud hut’ but now it’s a different type of ignorance. It’s things like ‘when do you go back to South Africa?’. I don’t live in South Africa. It’s a six hour flight to SA from where I live, that’s almost as long as it takes from the UK! It’s nothing like SA. Africa is a continent. It is full of countries. SA is a tiny, tiny one. SA is not Africa! It’s not even a tenth of the Southern part of Africa! Oooh, sorry, calm down Mel. Am I ranting!?
You get the idea. The misconceptions are rife. No doubt I could write a part 2 to this later, now that I’ve got onto this train of thought. But the real irony is that I’ve recently understood that these misconceptions work both ways. Many Africans (not those I’ve worked with or taught, but certainly the average guy on the street) think that London is England the same way the Brits perceive South Africa as Africa. They also believe we are swimming in money in spite of the fact that I owe more than many of those same people will ever see in their lives (that’s pretty humbling, what did I spend it on – was it worth it?). They believe we speak in weirdly high voices and will often mimic us. They think we eat strange things, drink too much (probably fair) and value strange things (they’re often right). They say things like ‘just go, that’s a mzungu driving they won’t hit you’ and believe it absolutely.
In a world where we misunderstand each other so much, it is difficult to see how we will ever get it together to ensure a peaceful and unified future. But our differences and our perceptions and the humour we can find in them are also what bring us together.
I gave Suzy, our house help, a lift to town last week and I asked her to put on her seatbelt. She speaks no English so we were talking in Swahili and she looked very surprised. I explained that the police would stop me to fine me if she didn’t so she tried to put it on, but she had never used one before and stuck her head between the two parts. I showed her how and she was so embarrassed and sweet about it, she giggled the whole way into town. I couldn’t help but laugh with her.
I love our differences, as much as I am frustrated by them. I want to be open to learn new things and understand new perspectives, as much as I find it hard to leave my Western perceptions behind sometimes.
I am writing this at Mwanza airport where I have just queued behind a whole series of Tanzanian, Kenyan, Ugandan, and Dutch people – all carrying a selection of apple products… you think Africa is backwards? You might want to see the hardware the average African is carrying around before any judgement is passed!
I think at least 90% of my readers have been here, so you know how I can laugh about something I perceive as crazy one minute, be furious about it the next and then defend it moments later. It’s a bit like your mum – you can say what you like about her but if anyone else dares to say anything you will leap to their defence (not that I ever say anything bad about you mum, and nor does anyone else! Just using mums in general to serve as my analogy!).
The truth is your expectations are re-born every day here. Sometimes it is frustrating, but at times like these it is amazing how people unite. Look at the messages coming from the majority of Kenyans and East Africans. They say ‘we love our country’. They say ‘peace’. Regardless of what happens, the majority stand by that. And I stand with them.