Thursday, 24 May 2012

Why I *heart* Africa

Every time I go back to Africa, I'm reminded of why I love the beautiful continent so much. On a recent
trip which saw me going from East to West, covering four African countries, I couldn't help wishing I was back there, on a permanent basis. I'm not fussed whether its Nairobi, Gabarone, Dakar or Kigali, as long as I'm home, basking in the warmth of the sun and the people.
I think anyone who has spent time on the African continent,  beyond that is, the odd safari, can attest to there being something distinctly refreshing about Africa. For me it's the natural beauty and the people- there is something unapologetically genuine about them that I have yet to witness anywhere else in the world. Although at times frustrating, especially when that frankness results in random people being brutally honest about your new outfit or hairstyle, most times it's simply refreshing because it means you can trust an opinion and ultimately that you can have meaningful interactions with people. One of my numerous pet peevs about American society is the lack of real connection among people. Everyone seems to be going 'through the motion' - questions are asked but few people really care to hear the answer. Labels like 'buddy' 'sweetheart' and 'darlin' are thrown about but they carry no real sentiments with them. They're simply words that people use without any real expectation - or desire to engage with the people they address beyond that is the odd beer after work or water cooler banter.

I love Africa because every time I go I feel at home. Whether it's because of the staff at the hotel where I'm staying in Nairobi who go the extra mile for me because I make an effort to speak Swahili to them, who consider what they perceive as my success, kudos to them because I'm their 'dada' (sister). At other times, this sense of being 'home' can come from the gardener at my friend's house in Abidjan  who will negotiate a 'local' price for me with the taxi driver he goes to fetch. It happens when I go to a restaurant in Arusha and find people telling me "Umepotea dada" literally translated as "You're lost, sister" - people I haven't seen for more than six years, who still remember my face even if they never knew my name. I find that the kindness and openness of the people I meet every time I travel to Africa far exceeds my expectation. At times I forget that this is just the way people are - for instance, I'm taken aback when a fellow passenger closes my rucksack for me because "you have to be careful my sister" or the man in the seat next to me, pulls apart my seatbelt so I can sit down and not have to fidget with it. My initial reaction is one of suspicion and the word 'overfamiliar' flash through my mind and then I remember I'm in a different place now, with different attitudes and realise that these people want nothing from me. Their acts of kindness are without an ulterior motive and perhaps because I'm a woman, or because they assume I'm African, or just because it's their way of life, they are willing to do these little things that cost them nothing, I start to let down my guard and appreciate Africa in all its simplicity and beauty.

I love that people talk - they talk to strangers, they talk to each other, they share their live stories, they just talk. In Accra I found myself wishing there was more traffic so I could continue chatting to the taxi driver who had asked me how long I was in town for. His response to my answer that I was only there for four hours made me laugh out loud and I mean in the true sense of the word - not the cyberchat 'lol' -but the real laughing noisely for all to hear. "Oh sisteh, you're only here for four hours? "..but sisteh Accra sweet o! If you were here for longer, I could take you to jokehs (jokers) and Rhar-sodie (Rhapsody), ohh sisteh what a shame.You have to come back oh, because sisteh I tell something, Accra sweet". I learnt from my friend later when I texted her to relay our conversation that the places he had mentioned were full of expatriates and therefore prostitutes. I imagine for my taxi driver, these were the expensive places foreigners would prefer. Even though I wasn't impressed with his assessment of my social preferences, I was amused by how easily he spoke with me, giving me a run down not just of the Accra nightlife but also the political climate and a bit of history too. I love that most Africans take an interest in the political situation of their country and can often give a post independence historical account, however inaccurate and biased.

I love that Africans have an uncanny sense of humour - very little phases them and they are able to make light of any situation even when they're the object of someone's anger. In Abidjan, my aunt couldn't help but laugh at the riposte of a waiter who she had chastised for turning an espresso into a cappuccino by adding warm milk in the same cup she had previously rejected. His come back was "mais tantine vous savez que ces trucs la, nous on connait pas trop" meaning "but aunty, you know we're not really familiar with these things (as in these foreign drinks)". Not only did he admit that rather than making her a fresh coffee, he decided to take a short cut, he was quite comfortable admitting that he had no idea how to make something that was offered by the cafe he was working for. As far as he was concerned, he was confiding in a 'tantine' so that she could understand why she ended up with the wrong drink.
I love how resourceful Africans are - with so little at their disposal; even the poorest person is able to come up with a plan to feed and clothe themselves. I remember watching a BBC documentary called 'Welcome to Lagos' and what struck me the most was how much people were able to make of so little. Whether it was coming up with innovative ways to do fishing or turning rubbish into something valuable, it was nothing short of impressive. Last year I had the pleasure of watching the film Kinshasa Symphony about a group of self-taught classical musicians in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was in awe by not just their musical talent but their ability to juggle so many other roles, market women who were also business women, philanthropic shopkeepers who took on the role of pharmacists because they saw a  need in their community. It was nothing short of impressive.

Even with its downs, the ups in Africa is a place worth visiting and from my perspective worth living for the countless reasons above and below but also especially because

How do I love thee?......let me count the ways

Africa is the only continent...
  1. with as many as 57 countries;
  2. with 1000 different languages;
  3.  with a majority of the world's natural resources;
  4. with an abundance of business opportunities;
  5. where the thought of Monday morning doesn't fill you with dread because life doesn't stop when work starts;
  6. where networking means you meet a C.E.O at a party on Saturday and call him on Monday for a job;
  7. where being black makes you part of the majority;
  8. where poor people can eat organic food;
  9. where you can buy clothes made by designers for less than factory-made ones;
  10. where having a normal conversation can sound like having a shouting match - except for the laughs ;
  11. where you can design your own shoes, clothes, jewellery and have someone make them for you;
  12. where a hairdresser will give you their brutal opinion when you ask for the same hairstyle as Halle Berry "hm, but have you seen your forehead?";
  13. where the beautician says 'sorreeee' as she waxes your legs or threads your eyebrows as though the pain was her fault;
  14. where the ratio of men to women is just about even (0.999);
  15. where attending a funeral is a legitimate reason to take the afternoon off;
  16. where most people eat with their hands, yum yum!
  17. where the midwife will laugh at you and tell you to stop screaming during labour because you got yourself into this situation *wink* *wink*;
  18. where even the poorest family will lay on a meal fit for a king for any visitor;
  19. where life begins at 60 because you're not heading to a nursing home in ten years time;
  20. where people will continue celebrating, oops, I mean commemorating a death 20 years after the person died.

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