Thoughts on departure from Africa

January 26, 2014
8:20 p.m. local time
Terminal 2, Bole Airport
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I’m on my way out of Africa. Do I think that I’m a changed person?

I think I was ready to be changed. I was ready to have an epiphany. I don’t know that this has happened. But I do think that as I reflect on this trip, I’ll have a few revelations down the road.

You’d expect someone returning from Africa to have a great disdain for superficial American materialism. And it’s true, American culture, and its emphases on celebrities and politics and sports and even on “ideas,” seems rather lame when you’ve been in another country. Over here, being an aficionado of American culture, or even being an intellectual, is a niche interest, like birding. For most people, it’s not relevant.

I’ve been called “Mzungu” or “Kawaja” countless times over the last two and a half weeks. Those words don’t mean “American”; they mean “foreigner.” They’re anonymous, dehumanizing words. They mean, “rich stranger who might give me money or buy something from me.”

Today, at church, a courtly Ugandan man asked if I knew what the word “Mzungu” means.

I said, “Of course. It’s been shouted at me many times over the last two weeks.” Usually it’s children who’ve shouted it, like this: “Mzungu! How are you? Mzungu! How are you? Mzungu! How are you? Mzungu! How are you?”

The courtly Ugandan looked pained. “That is not right,” he said. “That is not a polite word.” I smiled in reply, and he repeated, “That is not right.” He shook his head, sadly.

It’s an unusual experience being a foreigner in Africa. Today at church, my new friend Rev. Cindy and I were the only white people present in a crowd of hundreds. And it was a worship service, so it wasn’t focused on us at all. And there was singing and dancing and preaching and praying, and we were pretty anonymous.

But you can’t forget that people see you as a rich foreigner. Throughout the service, people stole sly glances. Some people, especially well-dressed elders, were exceedingly polite. Children stared. After the service was over, an old man chased me out to the car and asked me for money.

So there’s a feeling of being a minority, but not an oppressed minority. Rather, you find yourself feeling suspicious, as if people’s friendliness may only be a disguise for wanting something from you.

Maybe that’s why it’s hard traveling in countries where most people are much poorer than you, the traveler. It’s hard to make genuine connections with locals, so you end up making connections with people like yourself. And it’s true that the most satisfying conversations I’ve had over the last two and a half weeks have been with white people, not Africans — the Mad Scotswoman of Lalibella, the Brit who heads a charity for orphans in Jinja, the missionaries in Yei, and Rev. Cindy, an American theological educator in Uganda. It makes me sad that my encounters with Africans seem to have been more superficial than my encounters with westerners, but maybe that’s just how it has to be. I don’t know.

I’ve been thinking about materialism. Do I think that Americans are materialistic? Do I feel like I’m ready to embrace a simpler life, now that I see how Africans live? This is a very complicated question.

By far, I think the hardest thing about visiting Africa is dealing with lack — the lack that you see all around you, but also your own lack as a traveler. In Africa, you think about water constantly — you need to keep a bottle with you all the time, or you need to know where to buy it, because you never assume that any water anywhere is drinkable.

You think about food constantly — is it safe to eat? How was it prepared? You think about transportation constantly — train service is almost nonexistent, roads are poor, traffic in the cities is horrendous.

So when I get home, I look forward to NOT thinking about water, transportation, or food. I look forward to taking these things for granted.

On the other hand, in Africa the expectations are low, which can be refreshing. You don’t know if there will be a flush toilet anywhere you go, so you use pit toilets. You don’t know if your bath or shower will be hot or cold, so you get used cold showers. You don’t know what the food will be like, so you eat whatever’s offered. You don’t know how long it will take to get anywhere, so you allow lots of time, and you wait. You don’t know when any scheduled event will start or end, so you just show up and sit around and talk until the event starts. Everything seems highly inefficient. And that’s perfectly fine.

My normal life in America is highly scheduled, and I live in an uptight city, but I feel refreshingly laid back in Africa. I think I’m better at waiting in lines now.

I don’t feel very hopeful about Africa’s prospects for future prosperity. This is an enormous continent with exceedingly vast natural resources, but there are also hundreds of millions of people, most of whom are undereducated and underemployed. From what I’ve seen, the infrastructure is abysmal — you can’t rely on the roads or the power grid, you may or may not have running water, and construction standards are basic, to be charitable. Almost everything you see is broken in some way, or incomplete.

So I’m tempted to say that life in Africa is more “real” than life in America. But I also resist this. Life everywhere is real — Africans, who struggle more for basic necessities than Americans do, are not more “real” than my neighbors at home. Some are strivers, some are laid back. Some are vain, some are humble, some are reliable, some are unpredictable. People are people.

And yet, I think it’s hard to have been in the spotlight for two and a half weeks — hard to be the rich foreign tourist everywhere — the person who might give a handout, buy a gift, offer a tip, speak a word that must be listened to.

On an unrelated note, everywhere I have gone, I have run into missionaries and western aid workers. To be sure, I’m like a bloodhound when it comes to church people — I sniff them out, figure out their connections, drop a few names, exchange business cards. But a few years ago I read a critique of western aid written by an African woman, and I think I want to go back and read that again. Is it possible that there are too many westerners trying to help the Africans? So much so that they are hindered in helping themselves? I’m not coming down on one side of this question or another — I just don’t know enough. But I’m curious.

I’ll let you know if I have any future epiphanies.


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