Africa Is Not A Prop | We Can All Do Better

There is a conversation buzzing around, a larger conversation that ought to be had but keeps circling the periphery, it is one about the ethics of being a tourist anywhere, but especially in Africa.  A propriety that is expected from travellers; how to behave when travelling outside of your norm. There is an expectation on travellers to behave like guests of a place that has welcomed them, guests in our home lands, much like they expect when we visit their home. In general terms it is the basic common courtesy expected.

Lately, social media has been inundated with disturbing images that raises bile, makes one question the people behind these images, the thought process that went into producing these images and most important, the consideration of the impact of these images to a wider audience. You see, in this life, in whatever we do, in the media, in storytelling… aesthetics matter. They shape a narrative, they tell a bigger story than meets the eye.

As travellers we are guests of a larger society, one who hosts us without any qualms, it simply asks, or expects that you show respect to the land, its people and the traditions. It means learning the laws of the land before travelling there, it means understanding the bigger picture of our actions and how they will be perceived. It means understanding every single nuance. It means not super imposing your whiteness against our dark skin in the images you chose to project to a wider audience that has often held the ideal that our dark skin, wide noses and kinky hair is abominable- to paraphrase James Baldwin. Images that communicate the supremacy of a race against another. It speaks of an audacity deeply rooted in a colonial past that ruined our homeland. In the same token it also means that we, as Africans, do not get to come home from our travels and forget the ways of the land that raised us. We are all guilty of it to some degree; Africans who migrated to the west and enjoy comfortable lifestyles that is. We become somewhat detached from our privilege and the juxtaposition of this against our fellow Africans that endure a certain hardship back home. We see our world through the eyes of outsiders, suddenly what was our norm becomes foreign to us, we project ideals of other on what was once familiar. This is even more irresponsible than the foreigners who could be, but should not be, excused because they know no better. We do a disservice to the home land. We all have stories to tell and whilst there may be no malicious intent for the most part, common sense should come into play, especially when trying to project what makes us unique from within to the wider world.

Being African is no excuse for stupidity or forgetting the privilege years of travelling has left us with. As Africans we are not always seen as the enthusiastic and ebullient people we are, rather, the poor Africa narrative has been shaped by the west and we are seen as other. Still, wrong is wrong and when it is your own, it comes at a great moral cost. This is equivalent to colonisation, stemming from the pilgrimage of the so called missionaries who came to play the white saviour with their western religions in the guise of giving us better gods than the ones we pray to. We invited them into our homes and made them comfortable but they left us a shadow of ourselves stealing our land and trading our identity. We are still putting ourselves back together, showing ourselves to the outside world again so it is farcical that we replicate behaviours that belittle us. It pays to check our privilege; African or not, it pays to not forget the bigger picture, expressions on faces, reactions and the many things around us that inform a wider narrative. One we can be so willfully ignorant of.

The west, still views Africa through the eyes of colonisers, whether intentional or not, and it is time for that to change, to take back our stories from the foreign tongues that tell them, and the foreign lenses that misrepresent us to the world. And that includes the narrative we push about ourselves in order to appeal to particular sensibilities or to fit in an ascribed or expected opinion. Our homes may not be perfect, our lives not as glossy, poverty, diseases and many problems in our infrastructure leave us at a disadvantage, but we have our stories, our traditions, our beautiful people the world deserves to see and to hear. These problems are prevalent in the west, in any developed and developing nation, the dialogue ought to be open and honest. Africa and Africans are not a fashionable prop or a trend, we are real people with real stories, with different countries, cultures, subcultures and traditions in the wider continent- it pays to remember that.

We are who we put ourselves out there to be and we could all do a little bit better.