I can’t count the number of times I was asked the question, usually from locals whom I had met only moments earlier: “So, is it what you expected? Is Africa what you thought it would be like?”
Despite the (ironic) expectations that also come with such a question, I almost always disappointed my questioners with the boring truth—when I set off for Africa this past June, I really didn’t have any expectations. Nope, none at all.
I know what you’re thinking, but it’s true! As I shoved in my last few pairs of underwear and zipped up my bags for Accra, Ghana—my first trip to Africa—I was more concerned whether or not I would have internet access to update my blog than whether or not I would have cold or hot water, whether or not I would catch malaria like some of my friends had, or whether the poverty would be too much for me to handle.
These concerns were my new local friends were curiously digging for when they asked the same habitual question, I could tell by their lopsided grins, expecting an answer more along the lines of— “Oh, Ghana is beautiful, but it’s much harder to live here than I thought it would be,” or even, “I’ve never experienced such unbearable heat!” (To be fair, I’m from North Carolina, which turns into a 95-degree sauna in the summer, and trust me, few things are worse than that. Ghana was much cooler in comparison.) Instead of the aforementioned responses, though, I more often found myself repeating the ambivalent but truthful phrase, “To be honest, I’m not really sure what I expected.”
It may sound like a bullshit response, and I know that. I’ll agree with you on the facts: I’m an American raised in North Carolina. I grew up watching The Lion King and Sally Struthers on Children’s Fund commercials. As a child, I watched the montages on CNN from Rwanda or Somalia or Sudan or many others, as gaunt men with dark skin and stark cheekbones attacked each other in dusty streets. I even watched Nelson Mandela movies and read Apartheid children’s novels in middle school history classes. With these stories and more came a progressively larger but more defined picture of what many Americans now easily see as the quintessential Africa—a region marked by its poverty, disease, and war. This is what I was supposed to view Africa as. And, in some ways, this is what I did see.
Not war—Ghana is a very stable democracy—but certainly the former two. Take one of our first outings in the field. For a public awareness campaign (I worked to promote women’s empowerment and human rights), we traveled a couple hours out of the city, to a suburban market frequented primarily by women. When our packed truck reached the market, we began to drive directly into the gathering of people. Hundreds of Ghanaians, mostly women, were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the gathering space that spanned farther than my line of vision.
Some women sat on the ground straddling food or crafts in large silver bowls, others were working their way quickly through the hot mass of people. Our windows were down as we prepared to drive through the crowd, and the air—thick with flies and immense heat from the late morning sun—pressed in through the opening. Friday, I was told, was a popular market day, and people around me were selling everything from live, tiny crabs, collected in large cages, and cooked beef, slowly rotting in the heat, to bright-colored clothing, stacked in delicate piles. As we made our way deeper into the crowd of people, one of the local NGO workers in the front began speaking Twi (a local language) in a microphone, which broadcast his speech into speakers atop the truck. Our entrance was already gathering attention, but this racket ensured that everyone, the hundreds (if not thousands) of sweating, focused buyers and sellers, turned their attention toward us.
The memory is almost unnerving—the feeling of all those expectant eyes, drilling down nearly as hard as the heat itself. It was visceral, powerful, and because I was the only white person in all of the market, I drew a considerable amount of the attention. Here our awkward, wordless exchange began—I, the white foreigner, unknowledgeable of Twi, distributing handouts about domestic violence, and they, moving effortlessly through the terrible stench of the market, occasionally breaking through a curious stare to grab my handout in return. Sure, it was intense, but it can’t simply be boiled down into a narrative of poverty. It would be easy for me—as I did, in some ways, in the last few paragraphs—to characterize these market-goers as nothing but poor, needy women, but this would be an oversimplified, completely unfair portrayal.
It’s human nature, simplifying the details of our world so as to make it easier to comprehend, but the extent to which the image of “poor Africa” has saturated American culture is disturbing. Spokespeople wax poetic behind pictures of starving children. Journalists list off a thesaurus of synonyms for “starving” and “pathetic” in their columns, just as politicians do on their Capital Hill stumps (albeit with less eloquence). It’s like a tag-team exercise—let’s see who can make Africa sound more pathetic.
Africa is an amazingly beautiful place—and not just the geography, of course, but the people, the culture, the traditions that move quietly through the workings of daily life. Anyone who has been there knows that, so it upsets me when fellow foreign travelers fail to remember these aspects of their trip. On my transatlantic flight to Ghana, I sat next to an older Polish-American woman who was flying from Providence, RI, to visit friends in London and then travel to Poland. Incidentally, the woman, an engineer and former professor, had taken an academic sojourn to Nigeria for several months when she was younger (“I wanted to do something to save the world,” she told me).
Realizing our intersecting interests, we began to discuss Africa, her brief home and my new destination. Although I’m sure she meant well, all her stories were filled with harrowing tales of disease and hardship. First, she told me about the piles of fly-encrusted rotting meat that were laid out on campus everyday for people to buy. Next, she told me about the third-degree sunburn she received after standing outside for less than four hours, and finally, she told me about how everyone in her family got malaria while they were there. When her 5-year-old son became ill, they decided to ship back to Poland.
But, I said, that was 25 years ago. I’m sure things are better now.
“Oh, I doubt it. Actually, I bet things are worse.”
Of course, and thankfully, she was wrong—just as she was wrong, in my opinion, to reduce her experiences to a laundry list of various diseases and hardships. I can’t blame her entirely, especially since, in my retelling of my time in Ghana, I’ve often done the same. Yes, Africa is a very needy place—one that desperately needs international attention. But in our rush to help, or even our calls for help, I wish we could resist the urge to turn an entire continent of people into a 30-second film clip of starving children.