Monday, March 16, 2009

Never been to Africa

Without lying or exaggerating this is what some of my South African friends say, because they have perhaps never left South Africa, or only ever visited places like Namibia, Swaziland, or Lesotho. Namibia is the northwestern neighbor of South Africa, Swaziland is pretty much encompassed by SA on the east coast, and Lesotho is a country completely within the borders of South Africa.

But what does it mean? How am I to understand this, since I thought I already was in Africa? I mean the name of the country has the word Africa in it?!?!

So naturally I couldn't let this lie.

I'll try to shed some light on this issue and perhaps also finally explain it to myself. Or just ask more questions, and get multiple debates going while wine is flowing. 

According to my friends they are in South Africa, which is only linked to Africa by default, by the geographic location only. 

"Yee- yees?" I would say, thinking these people must have already had too much to drink. 

According to my friends they are not in Africa, because Africa has lions, elephants, zebra, mud huts, and guys with spears. No mock Tuscan mock villages, like the one we are forced to live in, no Montecasino, no Soweto, and no Cape Town. Apparently we live in the west, as opposed to Africa. Now, I never knew that these were direct opposites, but I have now been set straight. If I was being mean I would make a jab at the baggage the word 'European' has in this country. Just read Alan Paton's 'Cry the Beloved Country', and gauge the full meaning of the term in apartheid SA. But I won't get into that now.

Upon meeting one of our best SA friends for the first time, he made a comment that I will never forget. I thought it was an awesome response at the time, and it put a lot of my fears about coming here to rest, but I am only now starting to fully understand the various implications of that comment. On being lectured to by an Italian regarding what carpaccio entailed our friend retorted that he was "from Africa, not the deep dark Africa." 

Now I am left to wonder why it is so hard to be proud of this glorious continent, why is Africa only to be synonymous with a stereotypical image, and why are so many Africans themselves advocates of this kind of thinking? Not judging, just asking. Granted, Africa has its issues with wars and famines, and the unfortunately high concentration of dictators, but it also has unparalleled beauty, huge modern cities, cool, original people, multiplicity of interesting cultures, and, well, the animals of course. Why is it that being 'western' is something to strive after? For an American my home country, which all Finns maintain is in Northern Europe and completely westernized, must seem like belonging to a different category entirely with our location on the arctic circle, our long border with Russia, and our ubiquitous nudity linked to a tiny hothouse, lovingly referred to as the sauna

When did all the signifiers come to signify so much more than than simple geographical location? When did Africa become a loaded word, and one which even Africans themselves have a hard time stomaching? 

Elaboration anyone? Until I lose myself completely.


Molly said...

Congrats, seems you'd hardly been in the country for 5 mins and you tapped right into the whole SAfrican schizo-pysche dilemma. 'Cos what is an African, or Africa, really anyway. On a continent home to Marrakesh, Cape Town, Cairo, Dar es Salaam, who can say what 'real' Africa is?
Oh no wait, Lion King. THAT's the real Africa right?
Ugh, still reeling from traumatic camping trip, probably not making sense ...
Just catching up on you and your blog (and having a great time doing so). Thanks for the mentions, and the award - I'll get to that soon.

Extranjera said...

Exactly. And I'm just a foreigner trying to make sense of it. I can't even imagine what it must be like for you (since you actually allow yourself the possibility that you are in Africa, not some weird parallel world where South Africa actually shares a border with Britain or Italy and is a part of the West, but not Europe).