I posted this article a while ago on my website. Please feel free to comment.
The ‘Real’ Africa?
They call it the Dark Continent, even to this day! It's unknowable, it's stuck in the era before light, before television, before anything good. It reeks with waste from pit latrines. It’s filled with animals that are worth seeing, and humans that are worth shooing away! It's a blank page upon which anyone can write their fantasies. It's the place lovers of "authenticity" can travel through without noticing anything that disturbs their fantasies.Welcome to Africa!On the bus to Tamale, I met H-----, a Jamaican-American (or is this a redundant term, after all Jamaica is in the Americas). We got talking and eventually, she came to stay with me at my friend’s house while I was in Tamale.
H---- swears by Bradt, a guidebook on Ghana targeted at mainly European and American tourists visiting Ghana. I noticed that many of the tourists I saw had a new copy of this and I wondered how much money the publishers must be raking in.According to Bradt, there are a few things worth seeing and doing in this vast area of great historical importance. We are here to celebrate Africa, so let’s celebrate the African experience as it is lived by tourists to Tamale.
H----- suggests that we do a few things around Tamale as have been suggested by the ‘bible’, like visit Kalpohin, the Mole National Park and spend the night in a village called Larabanga with some people called The Salia brothers. We head out to Kalpohin for a ‘cultural exchange programe’ on a bus alongside some other tourists, though it turns out there is just two of us and the bus is actually a motorbike.
Next, We get on a bus by 4am to go to Larabanga and then Mole park which is about 6km from Larabanga. Once we reach Larabanga and step down from the bus, we are swarmed by young men who are immediately offering us a place to stay, to act as guides and just generally be of help (nuisance?). H.... tells them that we’ll be staying at the Salia Brothers guest house, so they point us in the right direction, making sure to tell us that the place is full. Me, being the city girl that I am, I’m expecting to see a modest house with a terrace and nice roof, you know, a very simple building. So you can imagine my surprise when we find the house, and it’s basically a collection of poorly built, hurriedly constructed mud-cement plastered huts, with dingy looking rooms and a pit latrine.
The beaming owner, Alhassan graciously offers to let us sleep on the roof for 3 Ghana cedis or stay in one of the rooms when the Dutch family who spent the night there check out. I’m horrified, because 1: It’s a filthy house and I don’t understand why anyone should pay to live like that and 2, this guy is making it look like it’s the Ritz or something. But H----- is sounding very excited, saying ‘wow, I can’t wait to sleep under the stars’. I’m thinking, No thanks.
Finally we decide that we need to get Mole Park and see if they have any accommodation, luckily I get a bunk-bed for 8 GhanaCedis a night and quickly stake my claim on it.
Afterwards, H----- accuses me of not being authentic in my decision to celebrate Africa since I refuse to experience what she calls the ‘real’ Africa. This got me asking a question many before me have asked.What is the real Africa? Is it a ram-shackle, filthy, rundown hut with no plumbing or is it a room with a comfy bed and running water? Is it an unwashed, naked kid, with runny nose and a bloated tummy or a happy, well-fed, fully-clothed kid? Is the real Africa the one where villagers perform on demand for tourists for a hand-out or is the one where the legendary Yaa Asantewaa stood up to the colonial invaders and demanded the release of her King in the 19th century Ashanti Kingdom?
Is the real Africa, dreadlocked guys on the beach trying to catch the eye of any foreign tourist for a quick buck and possibly a visa or is it an evening at the local drinking spot, having long conversations about Plato?
Heaven forbid, that I should complain about those lodgings because that would mean that I’m not truly African. To be truly African, I need to live in a mud-hut with a pit-latrine and if I choose properly planned sewer systems that give people a modicum of dignity – that would be inauthentic , almost …European… and we can’t have that happen.
I reject anything that makes it acceptable for anybody to live a helpless, filthy, poverty-stricken life all in the name of being authentic. Those same villagers who perform on demand have shea butter, cotton and pottery as a source of income. Why aren’t they being engaged in an equitable way to make money from these things and change their status?To make an experience really African does not mean having to battle flies from the pit-latrine. I know many people who live in villages whose houses are very clean, not paid for by any aid agency. Are they not Africans? Shouldn’t that way of living be celebrated?
Am I being naïve?You tell me.