Travel Fears: Africa – Revelations as A White Traveler

Faces of Zambia

This is a hard and somewhat scary post to write. In part because the ideas and realizations I want to share are difficult to communicate and convey and in part because if I fail to convey them properly I’ll come across as a complete asshole.  Still, I think it’s worth it because I think the realizations, fears, and issues that this post addresses are very real ones that many of you may also secretly share and be curious about.

Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

There’s a reason that this quote, or at least cropped versions of it can be found plastered across guide books, blogs, and articles dedicated to travel.  It embodies the beauty of travel. It also conveys some of the power of travel.

As a veteran traveler a lot of my prejudices and biases were eroded away a long time ago.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a household that focused heavily on education while striving to teach a message of respect, inclusion and evaluation based on individual merits – not race or ethnic origin.  Still, as I prepared for sub-Saharan Africa – a continent I had never before stepped foot upon or, to be candid, had a strong desire to visit – I was nervous and forced to admit privately, if not publicly, that I was unsure what to expect.  I had a number of what I knew to be childish  fears about simple things…dealing with my lactose intolerance, accepting local’s hospitality, squat toilets, a light case of hypochondria and underneath it all a decent chunk of racially oriented anxiety.  Because I think these are very real concerns that may resonate with many of you I’m going to do a series of posts i’m titling “Travel Fears: Africa” which will tackle each of these experiences individually.  To kick things off, let’s start with the most touchy of the various topics – race.

But, before I do, I want to clarify a quick point.  In this post I refer to Africans in a general sense. This is done because from an American and Western perspective Africa is often lumped together and treated as a homogeneous entity.  I fully realize that Africa is incredibly diverse, and that it is truly massive with vastly different cultural groups populating each nation.  For this post I’m talking about Sub-Saharan Africa and more specifically my experiences in Zambia.  However, because I think that similarly powerful experiences and realizations can be had across the majority of Africa’s sub-Saharan countries and because you, as my readers, are more likely to visit other countries such as Kenya, Nairobi, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania etc. I don’t want to limit this post explicitly to Zambia and Botswana so please forgive the gross generalization.

Faces of Zambia

Racial Concerns

It will probably come as no surprise to most of you that the majority of Zambia’s population is black – while I didn’t find much in the way of concrete data it looks like about 5% of the population is non-black while the remaining 95% come from traditional black African ethnic groups. A stark contrast to many of the areas I’ve lived in. Of these areas large parts of both Arizona and Denmark are not exactly known for their staggering multiculturalism. Exposed to travel at an early age and very scientifically minded I don’t consider myself as holding a racial bias.  Instead I understand “race” as a social category, differently understood in different contexts. I know the science behind pigmentation, the evolution of our species and how it shaped our outward appearance. Also, at a certain level I just don’t give a damn what someone’s racial background is though I am always fascinated by their cultural background – a key difference.  Still, our appearance does play a role in how we are perceived by others.  Attractiveness, height, hair color and ethnicity are all often easily identifiable visual markers that can sway us as we make snap judgments and seek to socially assign people to different groups and categories based on our own cultural assumptions.  To this end race is still a factor that shapes our interactions and our lives.  Not just between Black and White, but White and Asian, Indian and Black, etc.  Where it becomes especially interesting from a sociological and travel perspective is when we have members of a majority group in one region re-locate into a minority position in another. This has happened for friends who have moved from Arizona to Japan, or India, and it definitely occurred for me when visiting Africa.

Hopefully you’ve got friends from a different ethnic background than you and at some point you’ve also had an honest conversation with them about the cultural dynamics of your local community. While these conversations may discuss more visible issues like racism they can also cover other topics like differences in familial or cultural expectations,  regional cultural norms, etc.  Personally, I’ve always found these conversations informative and enlightening. Given that the majority of my travel has been confined to North America, Europe, Central America and South America this trip to Africa was my first opportunity to really dive head-long into being an easily identified/absolute minority somewhere. Frankly that made it a pretty scary.  Especially in light of the stories I’ve heard from other travelers, volunteers and expats.  After all, for all the racial issues the United States has between whites and blacks, Zambia has many similar challenges…only in reverse.  I had heard from friends that I’d be targeted by beggars and for bribes from corrupt officials alike, that there would be an added assumption that because I was white I’d have money, and that there were some legitimate safety concerns that I’d need to take into account strictly because of my skin color.

Beyond that though, and perhaps even more disturbing on a personal level, was the realization that while I did not hold a racial bias I did draw a cultural distinction which fell generally along racial lines. Phrased slightly differently, while I didn’t have a racial bias against minorities in situations where I was a member of the majority, the thought of being a minority among what still registered internally as a very different racial majority made me somewhat uncomfortable. I think this can be traced in large part back to an inherent racial bias which is still ingrained in American culture with ties back to segregation and the slave era. This semi-emotional response flew in the face of what I know at a cognitive level – that people are people, cultures are cultures, and that physical differences in skin tone don’t have anything to do with anything of importance.  Yet I found myself annoyed with myself and wondering if I wasn’t just falling victim to that age old pat yourself on the back racism that says, “I’ve got black friends…obviously I can’t be racist”.  The end result was that as I prepared to leave I found myself wondering just how many of the racial myths and biases that I thought I had overcome, I had…well….never completely internalized?

Faces of Zambia

What Zambia and Botswana Taught Me

Fast forward a week into my visit.  I found myself in a tiny village in the north western part of northern Zambia sitting on the stoop of my brother’s hut.  My parents and I were very likely the third, fourth, and fifth white people many of the local village kids had ever seen.  My brother and another nearby Peace Corps volunteer being the other two. We were unusual. We were different. We were a curiosity and we were definitely a minority. The kids would stand for as long as an hour at the end of the path to my brother’s hut just watching us as we went about our daily business. It was an odd experience and hence forth I’ll forever have an added bit of sympathy for celebrities facing off with the paparazzi.  Later, when joining his counterparts for a meal or conversation the local kids would pause their football games to stand nervously watching us.  Eventually, if we approached them they’d shyly introduce themselves unsure just what to make of us.  With the older kids and adults the invisible wall was different, more thickly disguised, but still present.

Now that I’ve returned to Denmark and had the time to digest my experience, I’ve come to realize that one of the best parts of the trip was the time I spent as an absolute minority. Not because I liked it, or I particularly cared for the differences in how I was treated, but rather because it gave me the opportunity to truly be immersed and exposed to almost entirely black communities. As I reflect on my relationships with friends many of whom are a mixture of both blacks and African Americans, I’ve come to realize that my relationships with these individuals are wonderful relationships but have done little to break down my own personal version of the African school children’s exotic uncertainty.  Until Africa I had never had the chance to be truly immersed in a fully functional black community that showcased individuals of all trades, social classes, and ages.  My interactions before the trip had largely fallen within the extreme’s: Most of them were either with blacks who were well educated, motivated, driven individuals like myself, and who were usually around my age or regrettable interactions with individuals who had a penchant for relying upon their physicality to get what they wanted, not base levels of education or personal drive.

That type of contrast makes it almost impossible to truly understand and relate to a group – no matter what type of group it is.  It also polarizes the nature of our interactions.  It is interesting then and to our own detriment that we often pretend that this isn’t the case.  Which isn’t to assume that everyone reading this is a white American from a heavily Caucasian community – I know you all are not. But, hopefully you’ll be able to draw parallels with your own experiences and communities.

What I found so powerful about my time in Zambia and Botswana was that it allowed me to truly immerse myself in a way that was lethal to those stereotypes.  It exposed me to wonderful people of all ages, professions, backgrounds, and ideologies in a way that fully rounded out my previously limited experiences with black people.  The sheer contrast was a key part of this experience, and helped differentiate it from my time spent in Belize which while populated by a large black population lacked the extreme contrast and immersion that made my time in Zambia so meaningful. I’m not sure if this was because I spent more time confined to the tourist trail, general expectations, a combination of the two, or some other factor but it does seem to have been a drastically different experience.  So, while I don’t think that I entered Africa with a pronounced case of, as Twain put it, “prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” I know that by the time I left Africa what ghosts of these traits I may have still possessed had been brought out into the open and largely banished. It simultaneously opened up a new area of exploration – one that focuses on Euro-American-African relations, history, and the issues of race and culture that go with it.

My goal in sharing these musings and observations with you is to help encourage you to be honest with yourself, to be honest about your motivations, about your preconceptions and what they mean for you as you go to organize and plan a potential trip.  Keep in mind that while these experiences and realizations reflect my personal insights as I explored Zambia you may find similar ones as you venture into different cultural regions.  It is also worth noting that in many ways the essence of these same realizations may hold true in reverse for Zambians making their first trip to the United States or Europe.  Regardless, I hope you’ll embrace the challenge, welcome it, and push yourself to connect with the local people.  To reach out to them.  To understand them. To learn from them and eventually to allow whatever deeply buried prejudice, bigotry, or well intentioned ignorance you may harbor to be burned away by the experience.

My time in Africa not only offered rich experiences and improved my internal person, but it left me better prepared to be a better brother to my fellow human.

Have you had a similar experience?  I hope you’ll consider sharing it in a comment below.