Thursday, March 29, 2007

Africa is Africa

Running into another white person (or just foreigner if you're sensitive about it) in the middle of the Sahel is always a bit odd. After a year of living in a small village in Guinea (that's in West Africa ) I caught myself starting to stare whenever I would see another obviously foreign person in the big city. I stared at the Saudi Arabians, the Lebanese merchants, the American missionaries, the drum tourists, the Chinese technicians and the Russian/Eastern European miners. And yes, in Guinea , all of these people are white. But I didn't want to talk about racial politics, I wanted to talk about how much tourists piss me off.

I was waiting at the bus station in Kayes (Kai), Mali , trying to get myself onto the bus that was leaving to make the 1000 km trip to Dakar that day. I had spent the night on a filthy 'clando' bus that wasn't even supposed to carry passengers, but picked me and another woman up from where our first bus broke down the day before, less than half way from Bamako to Kayes, and I'd been awake since we arrived at 5 am. I felt like I was making a rare and adventurous excursion into the less traveled regions of the Sahel . And what happens? A white guy gets on my bus.

Now you have to understand, this attitude is exactly what pisses me off about tourists. I don't actually mind seeing a fellow traveler on a back road, I enjoy the company of most of these people, but sometimes I find they have a strange attitude about the places we're visiting. I'm not much of a tourist. I don't like to go places just for the spectacle, and I don't really want to go to the effort of meeting new people when I'm on vacation. I love living in places that are new to me, I love being surrounded by a culture different than my own, and I love wandering down strange streets or making long distance marathon trips from one place to another. But I don't think this is why most travelers come to Africa .

My bus companion turned out to be named Olivier, from Paris . He was teaching French as a volunteer in a school in Mbour , Senegal . We were sitting in the dust by the side of the road between Tambacounda and Dakar , waiting for the drivers to fix whatever part of the undercarriage had fallen off and started squealing and rattling... I think it was part of the drive train actually, when Olivier asked me what had disappointed me most about living in Africa . Despite his awkward English, this is a complaint I've become very familiar with.

To me, this is a part of the exotic myth of Africa , the 'real culture' that tourists come here expecting to find, that they demand and pay for and create in a way through the money that they throw at Rastas and artists. I don't know that I've ever met an African artist who was creating art predominantly for an African audience. This is in part due to the rampant poverty in Guinea , and the lack of a middle class. I would be very surprised if Senegal isn't light-years beyond Guinea in this respect, just as it is in every other respect. But to hear Olivier tell it, Africans have abandoned their culture, and this was his greatest disappointment, that they weren't living up to his idea of what Africa should be.

To be fair, Mbour, where my French acquaintance is based, is a tourist trap and a big city. But honestly, how much time does the average farmer have to go about making costumes out of animal skins and dancing? Dance, art, music, these are activities that require leisure time, and it's in short supply to your average hardworking subsistence farmer. Musicians and artists have leisure time because they get paid well by tourists to create a spectacle, sell them pot and talk about one love and unity. I'm sure there are exceptions to this, but its a lucrative area of work. There are many many craft people I've met who don't fall into this category, but they aren't making as much money, and generally, if they don't party, they're not hanging out with tourists.

What really irritates me, though, is that this fringe of society is exactly what a certain kind of tourist comes to Africa to find; the "real" Africa , unpolluted by western ideals and capitalism. I mean, it isn't as disgusting as the sex tourists or the expats working and living abroad to take advantage of all those benefits: servants, younger, attractive companions, power, deference; but I find it almost as demeaning. What is the 'real culture' of Africa ?

Culture is a fluid concept. Africa is not a museum piece, and Africans are not immune to change, or isolated from modernization, and I see no reason why finding a village left in the last century would be a good thing. I say this because I think there are those among us who come to Africa looking for exactly that; a village untouched by modern convenience, sheltered from the passing of time, where the villagers still turn the soil with simple hand tools, and practice their ancient handicrafts exactly as their ancestors did. I think this bothers me for several reasons. Though mostly I think this is based on a misconception about culture. We don't dress like Victorians, we don't try to enforce stagnation of our own media, we are constantly searching for inspiration and innovation in art, and yet what we seek in Africa is preserved and stagnant. Culture is the constant evolution of a society's art. If you're interested in pre-colonial Africa, go to a library or a museum instead of going to Guinea and asking an artist to make the same mask over and over again because you think that's what Africans ought to do.

For the record, I have never seen anyone actually wear a mask in the two years I've been here. And while we're at it, the masks they sell to white people may be pretty, but they exist solely to be sold to tourists, and they were invented for that purpose. Don't get me wrong, I do think some of them are quite spectacular, and I'll probably get one to hang on my wall someday. What irritates me is not the existence of these things or the tourist trade itself, what irritates me are the tourists who insist on deluding themselves that they've brought back a piece of a noble and ancient culture.

I can't count how many times I've been passed in the street by some young tourist holding hands with a guy with dreads who won't even make eye contact because I don't fit into the image they've created for themselves. I don't like Rastas. I've fallen prey to the common Guinean stereotype that says that guys with dreads sell drugs, and that people who do drugs are 1: dishonest, 2: thieves, and 3: lazy. I have not met every Rasta in Guinea , but I have yet to spend enough time with one to get past the fact that what they want to do is get high and have sex. I want to be respected, and in African society, that means you don't hang out with the guys that everyone knows sells pot.

So how does this relate back to ideas about culture? I guess I don't really think that these tourists are getting to know the people that I like and respect, the everyday Guinean who doesn't seek out the company of tourists. The people that I work with are humble and dignified, and like people anywhere else in the world they want the best for themselves and their children. The people I know laugh and dance and sing when they have time, but they what they really want is electricity in their village, and running water, and a road. They want computers and a better education. They want a new car and a TV. I don't understand the position that it's a terrible shame that these are the things they want. If you live in a hut with a straw roof and a dirt floor, it's not just a change to get a tin roof and cement floor, it's a huge improvement.
And yes, everyone does want to go to America . They all want to go and make money and live the high life. What's wrong with that? Yes, it's true that not everyone in the US is rich. Yes, we have our own problems with poverty and disenfranchisement. But Guinea is an entire country without a sanitation system. This is a country that has floods of raw human waste (that's piss, shit and everything else) in the capital. Where the fuck does a tourist get off getting high and playing the drum and glorying in the absence of running water and roads? I've had my share of thrills off-roading, but I'm not about to go around claiming that there's anything noble about the isolation of tiny communities in the bush. And I'm certainly not about to romanticize the kind of life that people live without clean drinking water and a good education.

It infuriates me when I hear someone complain about the lack of culture in Africa . I miss discussions about art and movies, I miss galleries and museums, but the art is here, passion and creative spirit, entertainment, spectacle, and not all of it is just for tourists. Museums have to be supported by a government interested in promoting the arts, and by a society with the time and money to spend on such things. So tourists are either disappointed because they're looking for a romantic idea of the African bush, or they find for themselves a culture that has very little to do with daily life for most Africans. Either way, I find myself reminded of pseudo-anthropological treatises about the noble simplicity of the African savage. It sounds to me like a reduction, a simplification of the continent into a neat compartment that can be admired and put away, because its problems are rooted in the beauty of its passionate and elemental culture.

I guess I'm just mad that most people don't give a shit about Africa, and here are a bunch of curious adventuresome people who do care about Africa , but make it out to be something it's not.

-Becca Coppola

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Alicia’s husband hates me, Sonja’s parents are deaf. It can be incredibly difficult to remember people’s names. My friend Nick once met a girl five times and could never recall her name, I once had a girl come up to me while I was crossing the quad in college and tell me she was supposed to introduce herself to me when I was sober.

It’s definitely not an easy task to keep peoples names straight, especially when you’re not sure that you care. Drinking also does not help the situation. I met two guys that I went to high school with tonight, yes you read that correctly and yes it seemed a little weird. In my defense the high school that we attended was very large, about 3,000 kids, and these guys were a year behind me. Regardless of those mitigating circumstances while I vaguely recognized one of the pair, I would have sworn on a stack of bibles, despite that fact that I am either a non-practicing pagan, agnostic or an atheist depending on which day you ask me, that I had never before seen the other dude. Luckily, I suppose, my buddy Eric new who they were.

Eric is much better at remembering names than I am, mostly because he is smart enough to use them in whole sentences, such as Ethan is a season ticket holder, or either of the two that I stole from him to begin this essay. I, on the other hand, am absolutely fucking terrible at this game. I meet a lot of people in my day to day life, it involves boats and schmoozing, not writing, it’s kind of a long story, and for the most part I can’t remember their names seconds after they’ve introduced themselves. This may make me a bad person. It certainly won’t help the networking skills that my small expensive liberal arts college considered so important. I make snap judgments on whether or not I will ever meet people again and therefore if I will need to know their name at all. I would say that around 90% of the time I decide that the person in question is not someone with whom I will again cross paths and so I think about something else while he or she tells me his or her name. If I go on to have an interesting conversation with the person I feel bad about having either forgotten or never paid attention to their name. This would mean that my snap decision was wrong; this happens maybe 25% of the time. Probably less, seeing as how most people think I’m some sort of pirate and I hate people who think I’m a pirate and therefore don’t need to know or remember their names. If in the course of a conversation I decide that I have underestimated my new acquaintance and that I would indeed like to know their name I can normally pull of something along the lines of; ‘I’m sorry I’m bad with names, you were…?’ while shaking their hand and making eye contact. I’m good at eye contact. It scares some people when you manage to make and maintain eye contact; sometimes I do it just because I think that it’s interesting that it trips a lot of people up. It makes it easier for me to pull off this ‘I’m bad with names’ crap because I’m cute and have a nice smile; this does not mean that I am not full of shit. I am most definitely full of it, I have a government degree.

All of this is really just to say that it’s nice when you can remember someone’s name; they will appreciate the fact that you paid attention. They will feel good, so will you. This should be an easy thing for us to do, but it is decidedly not. Eric and Nick, another friend of mine who also recognized Ethan but could not remember his name, agree that it is a great way to end a conversation, especially one with business connotations, by using someone’s name. Let’s just hope you can remember if it’s Jim or James or maybe it was Jeff or John or Jamie could it have been Jake?

Say it with me everyone; Alicia’s husband hates me, and Sonja’s parents are deaf.

Note: This essay was originally written on 1/11/07 and appeared on an earlier version of this site


My sister is wearing a t-shirt that says “Eric Hutchinson is pretty good”. This is an interesting statement, especially to be making on a t-shirt. Why would you proclaim to the world, or at least the slice of it that will see you in the course of your day, that someone is ‘pretty good’? I suppose you could find Eric and ask him but I know that he doesn’t really like to talk about what he does (I can’t blame him I don’t like doing that either, honestly who does?).

Besides I’m really just interested in t-shirts and how much interesting stuff you can read on someone’s chest these days. My t-shirt, which is buried under a quarter-zip sweater and a jacket and as such is unreadable, says “Moosehead Lake Maine 04441” just in case you wanted to send a postcard to the lake. My friend Nick is also sitting at the table and I don’t know what his t-shirt says since it is likewise covered by several layers, this is the problem with becoming interested in t-shirts in January, I should wait and ask these questions in June or July when I can read remarkable slogans on nearly everyone’s chest.

The spate of ‘retro’ t-shirts and the fact that you can get anything you want put on a t-shirt via the interweb mean that many many people are wearing shirts displaying sentiments that mean absolutely nothing to them, or that may mean a great deal to them but not because of what they say. One of my favorite t’s that finally met the rag bag said “U.S. Forest Service FIRE” across the back. Fire was written in very large letters, and consequently people were constantly asking me about fighting forest fires, or about Tahoe (the shirt said “Lake Tahoe Region” on the front) which was kind of nice since I enjoyed the attention. Only I’ve never even been to the state of Nevada, let alone fought forest fires around Lake Tahoe. So I guess my question is this: was I lying to everyone whenever I wore this shirt? Does it matter that I’m pretty sure the friend I inherited the shirt from was never in the Forest Service either? Would it be better if she had been? Does it mean anything that I did get the shirt from a friend and not from the thrift store? Since I hate rhetorical questions my answers are: yes kind of, maybe, yes, and yes definitely.

The second worst trend in fashion right now is the printing up of ‘retro’ t’s, the only thing worse is the practice of selling pants and shorts to twelve year old girls with slogans scrawled across the ass in a deliberate and desperate attempt to draw your attention, seriously there should be a law against this. The highest offenders of the ‘retro’ t crime wave are the companies that make, the stores that sell, and the morons who wear concert t-shirts that were made yesterday in Indonesia but claim to be from rock concerts in the 70’s. These people are most definitely lying to you, they were not at these concerts, most of the kids who wear these t’s weren’t even close to being alive during the tours their shirts announce. Sometimes an entirely genuine t can end up putting you in an unfortunately awkward situation or even a fortunately awkward one. The later being exemplified when I wore my “Dean for America” t into a shop selling “friends don’t let friends vote democrat” shirts, the proprietors were horrified, they may have thought I was going to trash the place, and I may or may not have alluded to doing so.

Nick has just told me and my sister, Becca, his favorite t-shirt story too, it involves a decidedly unfortunate situation that is hilarious in its awkwardness. Nick’s friend James had been in a death-metal band at one point and they had made t’s proclaiming that they supported necrophilia; specifically the shirts said “I support necrophilia” and had a box that was checked off. Well, James’ grandmother passed away suddenly and he had to rush to the funeral. The only shirt that his mom, mind you, managed to bring for him to wear was, yes you saw this one coming, his necrophilia supporter’s t.

I kid you not folks this kind of stuff will happen to you. James wasn’t lying to anyone, but the rest of his family didn’t need to know he was all for some corpse f**cking while they were burying his grandma. So choose your t’s carefully, if you’re frightened go with a solid color, and if you’re going to make a statement try not to lie to me. And by the way, Eric Hutchinson is pretty good.

Note: This essay was originally written on 1/8/07 and appeared on an earlier version of this site