Visitors and foreigners often say how much they enjoyed their visit, however they would still very much like to see ‘the real Kenya’ or indeed ‘the real Africa’. I must admit that once, on a writing course, I alluded to the fact that running through villages with the totally embarrassing Hash House Harriers (eccentric expat phenomenon) I too was privy to a glimpse of the ‘hidden Africa’. (Don’t worry; I am totally wincing when I remember this!! Can’t believe I ever wrote it!). My tutor duly cut me right down to size.
‘Who do you think that this ‘Africa’ is hidden away from? Presumably not the people that live there?’
Anyway – my question today is, what is the ‘Real Africa’, or rather, what do we visitors mean by the term?
Let me guess.
On arrival, tourists are disappointed by unexpected glittering shopping centres in Nairobi filled with shops that look so much like the ones back home, or are dissatisfied by lodges and national parks filled with so many tourists just like them. The Africa they see is just too nice. Not like the images we are used to viewing on the BBC news. Expats who come to live here, to their surprise, find other foreigners are exactly like them are working and living perfectly normal suburban lives, sending their kids to nice (hopefully slightly mixed) schools. I’ve heard the same expression from them. ‘It’s kind of fake isn’t it?’ they say, ‘I was expecting something more real. I only feel like I’m in Africa when I’m on safari.’ (This view is especially true for housewives like me, who are not working but instead might be stuck in the home, school run, gym, coffee circuit. I think that working in an office environment in Nairobi today can be very much ‘real’).
I feel lucky to have lived here in East Africa for a long time now and, like lots of foreigners who have lived here for more than a year or so, I’ve seen quite a few things that might qualify as images from ‘the real Africa’, I’m not sure. I’ve been inside a Masai manyatta, in fact I’ve smelt the smoke and swatted flies right inside a masai hut. I’ve been to Kibera four times now and dodged muddy puddles in the rain, witnessed the sheer grinding poverty of it, been followed by children wanting to touch my white skin (went again this morning – thus the resulting philosophic blog post). I’ve also been lucky enough to interview Kenyan entrepreneurs who keep pushing valiantly forward in the firm belief that their businesses can succeed and take them to places they want to go. Along the way I’ve visited schools and villages, been sung to by children, gone to weddings and funerals, sat in a matatu. I’ve eaten ugali, shopped in second hand markets/mitumba. Smelt the smells. I’ve also been to game parks and watched huge African sunsets and moon rises, sat on white sand Indian Ocean beaches, splashed in warm waves, lived by the sea and lived far from the sea.
For outsiders, I think it is our preconceptions of ‘Africa’ that are badly at fault, skewing our viewpoint so that we can no longer see what is right in front of our face. The experiences I’ve had, especially the brushes with poverty, do not necessarily give me a better impression of what is reality here. Why should 'Africa' be defined only by poverty, whereby signs of wealth or prosperity appear too incongruous to digest, they fail to stack up. In my opinion the ‘real Africa’ is found when you chat to people you are lucky enough to meet every single day.
It could be the hotel chef who is smiling even at five-thirty in the morning as you head out on your game drive, the knowledgeable safari guide who knows how to read the landscape, the waiter who is patient as you dither over whether to order a cappuccino, or the persistent hawker selling dvds on the street, the guy who sells flowers, the man wearing a suit who runs an NGO in the slum having lived there proudly for thirty years – all the while resisting the temptation to throw in the towel, giving up to sniff glue or take drugs.
I reckon that it is simply within human exchanges that you will find today’s ‘real Africa’. By opening up conversation, you’ll soon hear a ‘real Africa’ story with all the tragedy and resilience, even appeals for help, which are invariably involved. So for those in search of ‘the real Africa’, it can be quite simple, you really don’t have to go very far or feel like you are missing out. Just open your ears.