When Taiye Selasie‘s Ted heralding the need to ask questions about where one is a local and not necessarily where one is from played over and over on my phone, one thing stuck with me; the fact that certain places scream positive connotations while other places project only negatives. Duh! We all know this, don’t we? Scarier still, is the effortless prejudice, deep seated and often indelible impressions that remain in our minds due to the aforementioned connotations. These specific thought processes have become as natural and as normalized as a white cloud in a blue sky. The fact that France for example, represents opulence and sophistication while an African country or the whole of Africa represents depravity is accepted with no challenge. The fact is, Africa represents depravity. The other fact is that, outside the continent’s poverty, it is also celebrated for its topography, its foliage, its resources, its animals, aka the wonders of Africa, which by the way are disporportionately emphasized over conversations surrounding the continent’s diverse peoples, its languages, its cultures and traditions, its amazing rich history, its food, its music and indeed all the positives of Africa’s humanity.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a colonial story set in Congo, portrays one of the many examples of why Westerners or non-Africans have a geographical rather than an anthropological interest in Africa. Marlow, the story’s protagonist is British and has a palpable obsession with the Congo river. He describes the Congo river as a sinuous snake that he could simply not take his mind off of.
“The snake had charmed me” – Marlow
The story essentially holds a plot that features silent Congolese characters. While the pervading atmosphere in the narrative (outside of course its pejorative title) remains solidly tied to darkness, barbarity, and chaos, this story is a representation of the colonial truth that the world is more interested in Africa’s non-human wonders than its human wonders. Animals and landscape are given a larger platform than its peoples. Marlow’s obsession with the river and the amount of time dedicated to the description of it versus the blatant silencing of the African characters in the novel speaks to this fact. Today, that overarching geographical rather than anthropological interest remains.
Spring was still in the air, yet the heat and its staleness made me hasten plans to a water park and resort in northern Ohio. The water park had the tagline; America’s Largest Indoor Water Park. It seemed exciting and very welcoming. The Kalahari water park in Sandusky Ohio bears the name of a desert in Africa that touches three Southern African countries, – Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. I wondered how many of the patrons of the water park knew that. I was not too sure if the water park was supposed to be a representation of the whole of Africa or if the entire park was actually representative of just Kalahari; the Southern African desert . Hopefully, the president, if he were to ever visit, would probably know that this water park shared the same name as a desert in Namibia and not Nambia. I decided to go to the company’s website to try to understand the real intent behind the questions I had. A cursory glance at the basic info about the park showed me these lines;
Kalahari Resort & Conventions are full service vacation destinations including meeting & convention facilities that combine America’s largest indoor Waterparks with the magic of Africa.
The whole of the entire African continent’s magic was small enough to fit into a building full of impressions of the animal kingdom. That was impressive. Wooden giraffes lined the hallway to the elevator, wooden elephant head masks covered lighting, the front desk people were dressed in game reserve guide outfits (tan/khaki shirts and pants), and my favorite, the gorilla and leopard paintings that hung right across from my bed and right on top of my head in our hotel room. The resort’s mantra was Authentically African. The resort was supposed to be the representation of Africa to the average American patron.
This post was tucked safely in my drafts because honestly, I imagined myself too busy or too full of many reasons why I could put it off until a better day. Sitting chin in hand staring at a million open tabs on my pc was a better deal. One of those open tabs was coincidentally on the New York Times website.
This article looked like a good read so I dug in, however, I’d gone ahead far too quickly. In the introduction was these two lines.
I read the article to the end and decided it was meaningful yet remained undecided over the weight of the double ‘m’ alliteration. I repeated the words ‘mystical mountains’ to myself. Was I being too critical or was there really nothing else that distinguishes Cape Town, its people or culture or anything else short of its ‘mystical mountains’? and later its ‘flimsy democracy’?
I sat through an undergraduate class and listened to their final presentations. They, (mostly Non-Africans ) had been in an overworked three-month long geography of Africa class ( which though hosted by the geography department did not typically treat geography per se, but topical issues such as Slum Tourism, Poverty Porn, Security, History and finally, Health and Development)
I was amazed that out of the wealth of subjects presented, not one of the presentations had an anthropological theme. They were all either about Animals or the topography of the continent.
Here are some of the topics presented –
Deforestation (in Africa)
Participatory Mapping ( Drawing of accurate maps for Africa)
African Elephant and Human Interaction
South African Cars
Conservation of Kenyan Wildlife Reserves