I’ve been reading Chris Mackowski’s blog about his first trip to Uganda, and realising that in many ways this is now a travel blog as much as a stream of consciousness journal about doing a PhD. Chris has had an interesting reaction to his post on his feelings about travelling to Uganda, where he discusses his hopes for personal development and eye-opening experiences.
One commenter said:
Africa is your chance as a PHd student to wake up? Sad.
Now, as Wainaina says, Africa has a lot of rubbish written and said about it as an abstract concept. As well as people pinning hopes of personal and ethical salvation on work in various countries, the discussion of the mythical, amoral ‘dark continent’ has been joined by discussion of the ‘failed continent’ (regardless of the veracity of that idea). I’m not a fan of talking about ‘Africa’ as a whole.
The emotions and ideas that come from travelling in ‘Africa,’ described in Chris’ blog and the comments, are, I feel, more general reflections on life as privileged, well-off (insofar as you can afford a trip to Africa) people from the US and Europe, rather than any serious reflection on local existence. Personal revelations about relationships, prejudices and guilt – all things I’ve had while being here in East Africa, or returning from it – are surely normal things when travelling, particularly to difficult, different countries (more so than Disneyland, as one commenter suggested; while I’m sure you can have life changing thoughts on the It’s A Small World ride, I doubt the place would really challenge your prejudices).
What’s important to recognise is that your own personal epiphanies and shock at life in ‘Africa’ generally don’t reflect the everyday here. Yes, I could write an academic paper on at least one aspect of life I experience every day in Juba (that’s the joy of being an academic: you’re allowed to be fancy and wordy about things like changing money in the market). But I’m also very capable of being bored and annoyed here; with cooking with charcoal, with waiting for water deliveries, with endless waiting in general, with sickness and road accidents and violent crime and endless political problems. If you’re constantly thinking in terms of comparisons with home, ‘African stories,’ and ‘development’ issues, you end up generalising and navel-gazing (as the ‘navel-gazing’ tag on this blog will demonstrate). If you’re preoccupied by continent-wide drama and constantly hunting for a beautiful metaphor for the regional experience – and your specific epiphanies – you’re likely going to miss the more current interests and everyday issues of real life here.
I understand the commenter’s frustration with soul-seeking tourists; it’s annoying to talk to people who are constantly profound about your everyday life. But living in England is often very hermetically sealed off from difficulties and – for most of us – serious life questions; personally, life in Juba challenges me because I haven’t had to deal with being separated potentially permanently from my family, had relatives die in conflict or of treatable disease, etc. However, my version of this travel epiphany here is now focused on improving myself as a ‘nice person’: not seeing my friends here as ‘inspirational’ or examples of wider African problems, but learning from them with respect and humour. I am trying to reconcile my feelings of being a neo-colonial “intellectual” – taking knowledge, ‘stealing’ it from the archives, writing other people’s histories – through developing my broader, non-‘Africa’-centric working principles, which basically focus on the right to information, intellectual freedom and public discussion.
I’m not ridiculing the idea of personal development through travel; I’ve used travel as a catalyst for this all my life. But when you travel with the intent of ‘finding’ something, or ‘seeing’ something – like the ‘dark continent’ – then you might miss out on the fun, boredom and frustration of the everyday.