I’ve just been surfing my telly with more-than-terrestrial-but-less-than-proper-freeview channels on it for a little bit of junk to watch while I have my lunch after finally making it home from work (I made it up the M1 fine but Leeds has shut Armley it seems..).
As it’s Saturday afternoon there’s not much on so I found myself clicking on Afrika Rising, a programme or indeed channel (I wasn’t paying that much attention) focusing on African culture, and in this case a singer called Asa, who’s Nigerian. It wasn’t particularly her music that made me want to write this though, although it’s worth a listen, she’s got a beautiful, rich, warm voice with a quirky female-Andre 3000 style about her. She’s also been compared to Bob Marley but I don’t think that’s such a claim to fame as EVERYONE in Africa (well, Kenya anyway), is obsessed with Bob.
What made me want to write is that I wanted to connect again with a little bit of African life. I was only there for a comparatively short time, and with so many other mzungu volunteers, and in such conflicting ideas running through my head about why I was there, that it was hard to form real friendships. But I’ve found myself missing Kenya, and in particular the people that live there, their incredible diversity, persistence, ingenuity, warmth, and joy. I’ve in fact just got in touch with Rhoda, the nurse at the clinic I visited, and it’s been so lovely to hear from her.
So I thought, let’s have a look for some DVDs I can immerse myself in, it’s cheaper than a plane ticket – something maybe Michael-Palin-travelogue-like, where we get to know local people without patronising them. OK I know Michael Palin did Africa in Pole to Pole but I wondered if there was anything else I could reminisce at. My brief search revealed nothing of this genre. Type “Africa” or “Kenya” into Amazon’s search engine and you get glamorous and/or colonial Hollywood movies, a huge number of documentaries on the spectacular natural history of the region, and promotional tourism DVDs plugging the latest faceless 5-star resort or expensive safari with the focus not on exploring and discovery but doing what everyone else does, because that must be what all tourists want to do.
WHERE ARE THE BOOKS AND FILMS ABOUT REAL AFRICAN PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES? WHY AM I BEING SOLD THINGS? WHY IS IT THAT PEOPLE ONLY MAKE DOCUMENTARIES ABOUT THE AFRICAN WILDLIFE? WHY ARE ALL THE FILMS ABOUT GLAMOURISED COLONIALISM, OR WAR, OR FAMINE, OR THE “QUAINT TRADITIONAL TRIBESPEOPLE”?!!! There are not just wildebeest and cheetah in Africa, there are real people and communities, with real, modern problems and it really pisses me off that we are still marginalising the warmth you’ll be met with when you get to know local Kenyans, and I’m sure other Africans, in favour of buying into an out-dated image of a 24/7 traditional lifestyle, as if being able to earn money by showing off your village to strangers for money, is a sustainable substitute for education, rewarding work, and development to be able to solve your own problems.
So, in response to the person who reviewed Julia Bradbury’s South African Walks, yes, people do wear tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts, yes they do all have mobiles, no they don’t have to conform to your expectations of how they should live, and no you shouldn’t be disappointed that people haven’t paraded themselves in full regalia for your viewing pleasure.
And the wildlife – yes I think it should be conserved, just like I think wildlife everywhere should be conserved (although Chris Packham may or may not agree), but it needs to be done in a much more inclusive way, to avoid the resentment that comes from believing you’re being kicked off your homeland to make sure the foreign tourists have lions to look at. And it’s not even you they’ve paid huge sums of money to so that they can do so. Stop bigging it up to the complete exclusion of the human communities that live in the same environments (and have no idea why we make such a fuss about saving the animals because we never take the time to explain they can’t breed quicker than we can kill them).
I realise Amazon doesn’t hold the monopoly on travelogues and documentaries, but it does help dictate what the market wants. I’m sure there are plenty of shorts and modern real-life docs (we saw one at Sheffield’s DocFest in fact) but they’re not viewed widely enough to challenge preconceptions. And propagation of outdated perceptions simply pigeonholes Kenyans (and other Africans?) into the role of anonymous and passive recipient, completely ignoring the talent and genuine passion that they have that’s just waiting to be nutured so they can fulfil their potential, both collective and individual.
I guess I’ll just have to look back at my pictures instead.