Culture

When Emma and I came to discuss how to put this book together, we realised that a lot of our coverage was nuts and bolts stuff – how to, where to, when to. . . And that didn’t seem to leave much space for what keeps us going back to the countries covered here. I nearly wrote “what keeps us going back to Africa”, but the fact is every visit is a different experience and every country has its own pace and feel.

Africa is not a country. Senegal and Sierra Leone have about as much in common as Finland and France. Morocco and Mozambique have even less. But somewhere in the shared experiences of travelling on this continent, visitors do find common threads, cultural denominators that somehow define the mood, even if it’s easy to reduce them to themes of comfort and discomfort based around heat, dust, mud and sweat.

It’s the manner in which local people deal with this highly physical, often challenging environment with such grace and positivity – and with far less artificial assistance than we travellers all take for granted in our lives at home – that shapes the various expressions of culture that you find across the continent, and makes participating in any one of them such a memorable experience.

You might be exploring the old cities of Morocco, or driving across the baobab plains of Burkina, or hiking somewhere in Sudan, or standing in mangrove mud, looking for bait on a fishing trip off the Kenya coast, or shopping for washing powder and bananas in a hill town in Cameroon, or even hurtling down the terrifying “leap of faith” waterslide at the tacky Sun City theme park near Johannesburg. Whatever you’re doing, you never lose touch with the immensity and connectedness of the continent and its people.

I’ve just been reading Kris Holloway’s highly recommended account of working in the US Peace Corps as a village midwife’s assistant in Mali – Monique and the Mango Rains –  a remarkable chronicle of the endurance and fortitude of the only health worker in the area. Kris’s descriptions – of the hot, starry night accompanied by the sounds of shuffling domestic animals; of beads of perspiration on the head of Monique’s baby carried on his mother’s back; of waiting out a torrential rainstorm in a mud-brick house – are moments that most travellers to Africa will instantly recognise. In fact, just thinking about that rainstorm evokes the wet-dust smell of a flash flood.

So why Africa? I’m still not sure. Why do we feel such strong empathy for it? This Why Africa? page will perhaps evolve over time as we grope towards some answers about why we love it so much. It has to have something to do with the stripped-down, physical, slightly edgy but always warmly human and often humorous, cultural environment that you must inhabit to get a feel of, to enjoy. You could love the landscapes, the wildlife, the big skies and all the rest of the safari experience – and that’s all good, nothing wrong with loving any of it – but if you didn’t also get the messy, hilarious, endlessly negotiated riot of everyday life, you wouldn’t be making the most out of your trip – or be in a position to offer the most back to your host communities.

Perhaps there is an appeal here to people looking for connections, meanings and community values that European society has largely lost, values that African society still expresses so forcibly. Many travellers are impressed by the African spiritual realm that the vast majority of Africans respect and participate in. African belief systems usually mix Christianity or Islam with traditional beliefs, very often including a belief that a person’s immediate ancestors have control over the fortunes of living members of the family. The family matters, and deceased family members are powerful social players. As an expression of the significance of inter-generational relationships in forming peoples’ lives, ancestor worship isn’t hard to understand.

Communal eating is a supremely companionable way to dine, though it takes a little mastering. It’s important not to stretch right across the bowl or to help yourself to the tastier morsels; the polite thing to do is to wait for the host to nudge pieces over to you. And never use your left hand, which is considered unclean. If you’re using spoons instead of fingers, you shouldn’t leave them in the bowl while others are eating. . .

(continued on p.192)

To be fair, some travellers in the end don’t enjoy Africa that much, or at least don’t get utterly hooked on it: it can all be quite hard work, and aspects of life here are deeply disheartening. But if you throw yourself into the experience, as a series of physical and emotional challenges, Africa always delivers.

Does that all make sense?

Chapter 13: Africa Culture summarises, as far as possible, some of the key elements of social norms, human relations and society across the continent. It inevitably majors on the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, as the “Arabised” countries from Morocco to Egypt are so distinct from the rest of the continent. As you travel, you’ll find we’ve barely skimmed the surface, but hopefully Chapter 13 will give you a kick start in understanding where your hosts are coming from, helping you to get on with people and providing some insights into the pressures that shape their lives. We might live with worries about mortgage repayments and job prospects: the majority of people in Africa worry about lack of rain (or too much), the demands of jobless relatives for cash handouts and the chances of getting any of the children into a secondary school.

This page last edited 9 June 2011, © Richard Trillo and Emma Gregg
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