The Hunt for the “Real Africa”

So many travelers talk about the “real Africa,” you’d think it were an actual place.

According to these travelers, “real Africa” is obscure, only popping up in certain, often remote, destinations. Cape Town isn’t real Africa; Opuwo, an isolated town in northern Namibia, is.  Maputo (Mozambique) isn’t the real Africa; Lagos (Nigeria) is. Livingstone (Zambia) isn’t real Africa, but the villages just outside of it are.  Kruger National Park is real Africa, Sun City (South Africa) is not. If you spent the night in a small village in Swaziland, you had a truly African experience; if you hung out with a few local sculptures at a bar in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), you did not.

Real Africa, it seems, is any place that allows you to feel as though you could, at any moment, run into Isak Dinesen, or any of the other characters in Out of Africa. Impoverished but affectionate villagers teaching you their novel social customs. Wild game a-roaming this way and that. Places that aren’t real Africa, and there seem to be a lot of them, are just a little too urban, with a few too many white people milling around.  In other words, “real Africa” is a bouquet of grossly simplified stereotypes that allows many travelers to happily overlook the diversity of contemporary Africa.

I cringe every time I listen to someone casually tell me about their experience in a small village, and how much they enjoyed the “real Africa.”  Maybe I’m so sensitive because I didn’t grow up with vague fantasies about the continent. I first visited Lagos, Nigeria when I was 12, to meet my extended family.  At the time, I thought Africa was all smoggy streets and crazy drivers, chaotic markets and flies the size of grenades. It was watching soccer with aunties and uncles and cousins and grandma and grandpa. But it never occurred to me to make any claims about Lagos’ authenticity. Whether it was truly African was irrelevant. It just was.

After visiting eight African countries in the past several months, I get the sense that many travelers are desperate to keep their fantasies of Africa alive. Instead of accepting the fact that Africa is as complex, diverse, and contradictory a place as anywhere else in the world, too many travelers attempt to squeeze a large, complicated continent into neat little boxes: real and fake.  “Real” lines up with what they expected to see, “fake” doesn’t.  Done and done.

And by doing that, they’ve blinded themselves to the beauty of contemporary Africa. This is a unique moment in African history, one in which African artists are taking Western cultural trends and transforming them with original African interpretations, and creatively updating traditional African fashion and music.  As a traveler, it’s a wonderful time to be here, to feel the creative energy.

If I’d had “real Africa” tunnel vision…

I wouldn’t have gone to a music festival outside of Cape Town, where I saw Tumi and the Volume, one of the best homegrown hip-hop acts in South Africa.

I wouldn’t have visited Harare, one of Africa’s most beautiful cities.

I wouldn’t have learned about street photography and art in Lusaka.

When I studied in Cape Town a few years ago, I ran into a number of travelers who didn’t consider it “real Africa.”  It was too urban, too easy to navigate, too white.  What they failed to realize was that Cape Town, with the legacy of apartheid stamped in the lines dividing neighborhoods, white separating black, is fully African. Cape Town is the history of South Africa set down in a few square miles. To be in Cape Town is to understand how racism and xenophobia have worked throughout the continent during the past century.  And to be in Cape Town is to get a glimpse of what many parts of Africa might look like in the next century. The city is uniquely African; there is no other place in the world like it.

The funny thing is that we don’t usually apply these rules of authenticity to our home towns. I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area almost my entire life.  If someone asked me to show them the real Bay Area, I would not know where to take them.  There are different places where different things happen, and I like some places more than others.  I like Marin because it’s pretty. I like Berkley because it’s eccentric. I like San Francisco because it’s eclectic.  I like Oakland because it’s rebellious. None is more authentic than the other. They are different, intersecting, conflicting parts of a whole.

As travelers, this is what we seek.  To build a full picture, a robust picture, but not necessarily a neat picture.  My point is not that we should ignore Africa’s small towns and villages. It’s encouraging to see so many people wanting to celebrate traditional African customs; they’re fascinating, and they can teach us a lot.  We travel, in part, to learn about lifestyles that are different from ours, with the hope that the experience eventually helps us learn about ourselves.

But we shouldn’t stop at the borders of Africa’s villages or game parks, close our eyes and pretend like the rest of Africa doesn’t exist. Travel isn’t about ignoring the realities in front of you and fulfilling your fantasy at all costs.  As we explore the world, we owe it to ourselves to be confused, to not understand and to accept the fact that the destinations of our dreams may be much different in reality.  It doesn’t get any more real than that.

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Photo credits: Entropy1963, Carolina Odman, all others courtesy of author and may not be used without permission

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