Seek To Understand

Africa is a continent of great contrast. I and so many who have been here have said it before and seen such dynamism play out before them through the natural order of things here. For instance, the beautiful wildlife which flourishes, attracting so many, lives and dies in a paradise ruled by tooth and claw. It is a violent and tranquil place.

This is, inherently, the circle of life. Where there is light, there is dark. They are balanced and a necessity for life to go on as it is meant to but there is also an unnatural darkness. This is a wickedness which can only be concocted by the human hand. An interference which threatens and subjects whole people's and cultures. 

Last night I witnessed this. We were staying on the grounds of a safari lodge. The campsite was beautiful and littered with elephant tracks. It was a happy place to call home for the night. Early on we encountered a conflict in regards to who were lodge guests and who were campers.  It appeared the lodgers had reserved exclusive use of the whole facility, which essentially locked us out. 

The issue was quickly resolved but it was already enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Management attempted to make it up to us and we were invited to a performance later that night of traditional song and dance.

When we dragged ourselves into the lodge that evening we faced a white wall of faces. Everyone sounded to be American, over 65 and clearly had some money. There was maybe 20 of them. In front of us all were 5 black Zimbabweans singing and dancing.

We had been visited by two tribes already so some songs were familiar. They opened with their national anthem which was pretty special. Then things got ugly. 

The next song was more like a commercial for the lodge and had the unnerving chorus of "dear tourist, we love you, we need you." The response was a hearty laugh from the all white, wealthy audience. For those of us who had spent the better part of a week living with locals in the bush, this became deeply uncomfortable.

Before us, jumping up and down, dancing for their meals and subjecting themselves to this exploitation was a proud people. A historic and expansive culture, reduced to the mere entrainment of this off tempo clapping audience, pointing and laughing. 

Africa has a very recent and painful history shackled to the imperial colonization of the whole continent. Centuries of this redirected the course of entire civilizations. It is what would fuel the  transatlantic slave trade, the Boer Wars, the Rwandan Genocide, Apartheid and the general instability which has haunted central Africa for decades.

Here in is this lodge, stripped to it rawest form, was the origin of all this pain. A skewed power balance, humans being written off as a novelty. I could not get out of there fast enough. I felt filthy to be a part of it, disgusted to see how my fellow Americans were participating in this. It was heartbreaking. 

It was only when we got back to camp I began to feel right again. It was a safe distance from the crime scene and we were now back beyond the fence. We were now back under the stars, the Southern Cross winking, back in lion country. The constant threat and fear which comes with darkness here returns and becomes a comfort. You are back in your natural place, at the mercy of this land's majesty. One does not master Africa, rather, Africa compels us to master ourselves. 

When you go into the world you are, formally or informally, a diplomat of your home. You represent your country. Go into the world not repeating the mistakes of our past, thinking it is ours to conquer. Do not go to be entertained. Seek to learn and understand first. Do this and your world will be far more interesting, rewarding and even more entertaining than you could have ever dreamed.

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