“It’s just not. It’s fake. There’s no culture.” Her derision was clear on her face and in her tone as we walked by shop after shop overflowing with identical generic East African kitsch.
I was 99 per cent sure I was in Africa, geographically speaking (barring an unperceived Galactica space jump – a girl can dream). But did she have a point? The tourist district of Stone Town is, to be fair, devoid of any real substance or authenticity. But to dismiss the place as “not Africa” seemed simplistic.
Chichimanda Adichie does an amazing TED Talk on the “single story”. The basic gist of it is that the Western media tells only one story of Africa – the story of children’s distended bellies and single tears, of poverty under corrugated tin roofs, of wars, clan conflicts and a violence that never seems to end.
This is all true. This happens, and it is important people know about it.
The occasional alternative given to this narrative is simplistic at best – safaris teeming with wildlife, and a homogenous, one-dimensional populace joined hand in hand in a colourful folk dance.
I’m sure aspects of this are true as well.
What is “culture” exactly? Canadians often make the joke that we have no culture, and that’s why we obsess over hockey and mainline maple syrup. But the concept of culture is so nebulous that it seems like anyone can use it to define whatever they want it to be. To give this whole massive continent two simple narratives at best is a massive underestimation.
If you come to Zanzibar expecting the baritone choral hums of Circle of Life to start playing as soon as you step off the plane, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But isn’t that what travel is all about? Challenging your own preconceptions of a place?
Zanzibar is an infinitesimal section of the continent, and within a few weeks here I had already seen more depth of experiences and stories than I gathered through a lifetime of being an avid news reader.
Yes, it is touristy. The excess of fake souvenirs from China and services designed to relieve tourists of their travel funds can be frustrating – just like anywhere in the world. Most travelers disdain places like this as squarely on the beaten path, for the uninitiated masses only and to be avoided at all costs. But people still live here. To dismiss their experience is a mistake.
With that in mind, I spent the past week thinking about culture as a concept, and how we experience it on this island. The first place to look was easy – my Zanzibari friends. While we all live in the same city, their experiences are, of course, much different than mine. They are the city boys of Zanzibar, firmly rooted in local culture while making their living from tourism, music, business or other non-traditional sectors and are very much a part of the globalized world. Stone Town is a mostly modern city with an ancient infrastructure – stuffed-full apartment blocks, noise at all hours of the night, and lots of people. It’s a world away from the simple villages of shamba (the rural area of the island). English is spoken widely, tourists mill around in the streets, and tourist-focused and local places run the gamut from low to high end. Being city folk, my friends sometimes get a certain amount of flak when heading to shamba on Unguja (Zanzibar’s main island). A running joke is that one, lighter skinned friend, is often mistaken for a mzungu. Twice this weekend, he was spoken to in English by a police officer – when he replied in perfect Zanzibari Swahili, the officer rescinded his bribe-seeking hand and offered a shit-eating grin.
The ethnic background of Zanzibar has something to do with this – the populace comes from Bantu, Arab and Indian descent, meaning there is no one Zanzibari “look”, but the diversity of lifestyles and stories has some meaning here as well.
Take my friend Salma, for example. Salma works as a kind of jack-of-all-trades – dressmaker, cook, mason, and housekeeper, and the list expands every time she learns a new skill. Her simple stone house, surrounded by papaya and banana trees out in the interior shamba is a lot more like what people imagine “Africa” to be. No electricity or plumbing, cooking on coals, making do with what’s there. I spent the day there last weekend, and thought about culture sitting in the dirt under a corrugated tin sheet set up to shelter the laundry buckets from the sun. Salma’s life couldn’t be more different from a tourism operator or business owner in the city. But it is closer to the single story read about Africa by the rest of the world. Does that make her experiences somehow more valid or pure?
Someone saying Zanzibar is “not Africa” implies that there are a set of characteristics out there that are definitively African. It’s like saying Berlin isn’t Germany because you didn’t see anyone in leiderhosen and no one was chugging a Das Boot.
Visiting a women’s cooperative last week I helped out with bunch of different activities: soap making, pasta rolling, crushing cinnamon. There was singing, chatting, laughing across cultural differences – it was an idyllic morning in the forest. It reminded me, in some ways, of a craft centre I visited in Rwanda in June, but the similarities ended at the superficial. The songs, the products, the environment, and the overall experience was vastly different – Rwandan baskets are made differently, people speak Kinyarwanda with French accents and undertones, different hairstyles, clothing, everything. And when you reflect on it, it’s obvious that that should be the case – it’s a completely different country, over a thousand kilometers away. Not to mention the vast differences between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania. In spite of their (fraught) political unity, Zanzibar often seems to have more in common with Oman or Mombasa. Architecturally, socially and culturally, there are a lot of Middle Eastern undertones, as opposed to the more Bantu-based cultures of the mainland. But that cultural diversity and diversity of experience isn’t top of mind for a lot of people when they think about Africa.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is this – it can be frustrating to visit somewhere and be pandered to, to feel like every line has been rehearsed and that the place you’re visiting is a stage set up to lighten your wallet. But real culture (whatever that is) can be found between the cracks. Getting out of the tourist district into the unknown, or just being genuinely interested in the lives of the people you interact with, will get you somewhere. You can find it, if you put in the time and effort. It just might not be exactly what you expect. It might be a lot more similar to your own life and experience. But that doesn’t make it less “Africa” or less valid. What it means is that people live their lives as they can and do, just like you, and all over the world, we are both vastly different and essentially the same. And isn’t that kind of a beautiful thing?