I’m still settling into my return to America. I’m slowly readjusting to the idea of readily available high-quality coffee, to the superabundance of cheap, high quality food (there’s a paradox: the daily staples of an East African diet can be had for $1 – $2 a meal, but the cheap staples of a humble American meal–a good loaf of bread, say, and some hard cheese–cannot be had at any price). The produce in East Africa is fresher than much of the produce here in the United States–but, paradoxically, not of higher quality. We grow better varieties of apples, citrus here.
The biggest change has been becoming reaquainted with the safety and security of America. I still find myself going tense when someone walks into a bathroom behind, when a car drives up behind me in the street. I still feel nervous when using my (replacement) iPhone in the street, worry that someone might use the cord between my earphones and my phone to attempt to snatch it from me. I’ve found myself thinking, for the first and only time in my life, that it might be useful to take some self-defense classes, to take boxing lessons, to learn how to dodge and throw punches.
Self-defense, like iron-smelting, is a delightfully useless skill in America. (In fact, the statistics bear out that preparing in self defense in America makes your more likely to be involved in violence.) The use of force here has been surrendured to an astonishing degree to the police and civil authorities. It’s conceivable to be involved in a fight in America (typically over some perceived slight).
I imagine that East Africa today (or, at least, its big population centers–Nairobi, Dar es Salaam) is much like the 19th century American West, where each individual is responsible for maintaining his own personal security, but a credible threat of violence. Frankly, I’ll say its far more pleasant to live without being under a constant threat of violence.
East Africa was a bruising and eye-opening experience. I don’t know if there’s another society other than America where individuals have so much liberty and also so much security. There’s generally a trade-off between liberty and security, but someone America has managed to push the production frontier of that relationship far further from the origin than any other society. How did we get here? To what do owe our tremendous richness of both liberty and security?
The truth is, though I certainly did not admit this to myself while travelling there, I didn’t much enjoy East Africa. East Africa is poor in many of the ways that make traveling rich.
I found East Africa to be culturally uninteresting. It’s difficult to say if this is because East Africa is westernized, if it’s because African culture has a strong presence in American culture (and so is familiar), or if East Africa is still caught in the grips of its pre-colonial tribalism, recent colonial heritage,. National identity is weak. Since the nations are (relatievly) newly minted by colonial powers, its not realistic to expect any sort of national art forms. There’s barely national unity (perhaps art could help with this). The music, mostly hip-hop and reggae, was nothing I hadn’t heard before (the bands were different, but the style was substantially the same). The modes of dress were generally very western (except, perhaps, for the Masai–but the Masai have been so over romaticized and have become reflexively aware of the commercial promise of their romantic allure of their traditional ways). The architecture was either mud huts or colonial. There was very little in the way of public art. The art galleries that existed all produced art in a very similar and hackneyed vein, which seemed more reflective on what a tourist might think typical of Africa and be inclined to purchase than any sort of true artistic expression. That is, I walked into a half dozen galleries across four countries and everywhere the art was the exact same (paintings of baobao trees, women with exaggerated curves carrying clay pots upon their heads, paintings of the outline of the continent of Africa, of elephants and giraffes).
The food, suffice to say, was shit. One of the first words of Swahili I learned was the word for salt (“chumvi”). Bland and very repetitive. The meat was consistently gristle-bound, tough, and flavorless. And many of the staples of East African food were obvious imports. Wheat does not grow in East Africa, yet chapati (or “chapat”), (someone resembling the Indian flatbread of its namesake), was ubiquitous, and made from imported flour.
Aside from those going on safari or a mountain trek, travelers were few and far between. Only the largest (or decidedly “tourist” oriented) cities had hostels or any sort of accommodations oriented toward international travelers. As such, few of us such as we were, there was little opportunity to meet other travelers.
And, frankly, I didn’t much care for the people. My suspicion is that a century of colonialism followed by a half-century of neo-colonialism under the guise of aid work has conditioned Africans to view all white western travelers as Santa Claus. Perhaps rightfully so–aside from major tourist destinations, aid workers outnumbered travelers. Even the friendships I struck up while traveling in Uganda seem now, in retrospect, to have been less interested in me as an individual than me as a potential source of free drinks or other largess.
Plain speaking and honest dealing are not African values or virtues. I think deference is made to pleasantness, harmony.
And dear god, what an unpleasant place to travel (at least by means of public transportation). Self-driving would be fine (though the safety and security of your vehicle would be a constant concern). But nowhere, in all my travels in the developing world, were the means of public transport so uncomfortable or so unsafe. Between major destinations there were usually large buses. Though usually stifling hot (and never air conditioned) a bus guaranteed that you would get a whole seat to yourself.
As with previous travels, I suspect my greatest “gain” from my months in Africa this summer is a keener appreciation for this place I call home.