Travelling the world but seeing very little

How difficult it seems to be for Europeans and Americans to visit Africa without being unwanted outsiders. And how easy it is to see why that Africans would feel that way. During the nineteenth century, Europeans visited Africa as explorers and were astonished by what they saw. Mary Kingsley, an intrepid Englishwoman, was one of the first women who traveled extensively in Africa. She started out in the 1890s and wrote popular books about what she observed in a

Mary Kingsley in Africa

Mary Kingsley in Africa

continent that few Europeans had ever visited. Most of the people she had known in England assumed it was strange, uncivilized and riddled with irrational traditions and superstition. Kingsley recognized better than many explorers and missionaries that African culture, which seemed so strange to Europeans,  had developed because it worked for the local people. She understood, for example, why many Africans clung to polygamy.  She pointed out that polygamy made sense because “it is totally impossible for one woman to do the whole work of a house — look after the children, prepare and cook the food, prepare the rubber, carry the same to the markets, fetch the daily supply of water from the stream, cultivate the plantation, &c, &c.” (Travels in West Africa, 211).

Kingsley was sympathetic, but she always viewed Africans from the outside, more as a curiosity to be observed than as people to be known. We can excuse her for being so provincial in her point of view, but surely in the more than a century since her books were published, we have learned better. Unfortunately many modern travellers act very much as Kingsley did. A modern tourist descending from a cruise ship or a tour bus will often stare at African women pounding grain while carrying a baby tied to their body with a cloth sling. Most tourists snap picture after picture to post on their Facebook page. But watching tourists snap pictures of people working and going about their ordinary lives is a chilling experience. Should people ever be reduced to objects of curiosity? Haven’t we moved beyond that in the many years we have been traveling around the globe and intermingling with other cultures?

European colonists moved to Africa in large numbers during the 19th century, especially the more temperate areas of Southern Africa such as Rhodesia and South Africa. There grew acclimated to the climate and learned to love the continent. Surely the barriers between the races should have broken down over all that time. Yet recently reading a book written more than 100 years after Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, I was struck by how little some things had changed in relations between the races.  Alexandra Fuller’s memoir,  Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood,  is a fascinating account of growing up in a white family in Rhodesia as it achieved freedom and became Zimbabwe during the turbulent years of the late 20th century. I was surprised when I came upon this passage:

And this is how I am almost fourteen years old before I am formally invited into the home of a black African to share food. This is not the same as coming uninvited into Africans’ homes, which I have done many times. As a much younger child, I would often eat with my exasperated nannies at the compound (permanently hungry and always demanding), and I had sometimes gone into the labourers’ huts with my mother if she was attending someone too sick to come to the house for treatment. (pp. 235-236)

Surely after having spent almost all of her life among black Africans, it is surprising to realize the distance between this girl

Zimbabwean women with a new well.

Zimbabwean women with a new well.

and the people who lived around her. Naturally a child takes on the attitudes and habits of her parents and mirrors the ways in which they interact with others, but it is sad to see how vast the gulf between black and white Africans even those who have lived as neighbors for years and sometimes generations. Western colonists in all countries seem to have lived in their own small, narrow world side-by-side with, but never truly integrated into the lives around them. And the saddest part of all is that we are still doing it.

Western diplomats, tourists, aid workers and troops travel around the world living sometimes for years in the midst of societies they seldom understand or value. Life in a gated and fortified community can seem much like life in an American suburb, completely remote from the “locals” who we are trying to influence.  Americans are famous for not bothering to learn the language of the countries in which they spend time, even long periods of time. Sarah Chayes in her recent book Thieves of State tells us how a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to listen to local citizens in Afghanistan has led to mistakes and problems that might have been avoided.

How long will it take for us to learn that a global world requires listening and interacting, not just traveling and imposing our ideas wherever we go?

3 Comments

Filed under World Peace

3 responses to “Travelling the world but seeing very little

  1. Melissa Shaw-Smith

    Adele, I concur wholeheartedly with your post, with the exception of the intention of visitors who take photos of people going about their daily business. I think that most people take photos not to belittle the tasks of those in the images, or to demonstrate a weird or uncultured way of life, but out of curiosity and an eagerness to understand and marvel at others lifestyles. Perhaps this is a step toward the global understanding you write of. Thank you for raising these valid concerns.

    • Well, I probably spoke too hastily. It’s true that taking photos can be a way of trying to understand people rather than treating them as objects. It’s all in the attitude, isn’t it? Perhaps if visitors put the emphasis on trying to communicate with people, trying to understand why they are doing what they are doing, that’s the important part. The photos are fine if they are a part of understanding rather than just a record of an exotic scene to show the folks back home. I guess that what I really want to say is that people should think about what they are seeing rather than just taking pictures of it.

  2. Laura

    You end with a crucial question: HOW LONG, indeed????? I agree with you that we so often seem just as separate from each other as ever before. What a sad commentary! Here’s hoping that things can change in the future, even though sometimes change seems very far away.

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