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.
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.