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A Tribe Called Africa: A response to The Saint’s Africa Travelogues
|Opinion||Fri, 20 Apr 2012||Tweet|
Note: All articles in the Opinion section are the views of the individuals expressing them and do not represent The Stand's official stance on anything.
On Friday 13th I came across something horrific. No, it wasn’t Freddy Kruger. It was a series of articles on The Saint. The stories to which I refer were a series of three, entitled ‘Africa Travelogues’ which were, until now, a feature on The Saint's website. These articles weren’t just poorly written, they portrayed a number of disturbing neo-colonial and (to be blunt) racist stereotypes about the ‘Africans’ the author encountered along his journey.
Let’s begin with entry number one. The article commences with an explanation of the Travelogues, stating that the author and some friends are travelling across South Africa. This is the first mistake. They are actually travelling to four countries, namely Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, i.e. they are travelling across Southern Africa (which is the name of the continent right? Wait… what? Is Nelson Mandela in the Shawshank Redemption?).
The author begins his series with the insight that “I flew out from Heathrow Airport in the knowledge that I would be spending much of the next two months on a bicycle in a land (as my Father put it), where everyone wants to harm or at least rob you." I’m not even going to say anything humorous about this. It's a blatantly offensive generalisation to make of an entire continent, and the fact that the editors of this article didn't see it necessary to take this out is unfortunate. I don’t think even the Daily Mail would publish something that explicitly xenophobic. The author writes “Some considered me naïve, even arrogant, to have considered myself worthy of a challenge of such magnitude. Ignorance is perhaps the best word to describe my approach towards the whole expedition.” This weirdly self-referential piece of meta-criticism makes me question whether these pieces are actually an insanely polished piece of post-colonial satire. Then I remember I’m reading The Saint.
The entry goes on to describe a meeting the group had with an ‘ex-service man’ who “briefed us on the dangers that we might face such as disease, wild animals, people and above all, articulated trucks.” Oh dear. Where do you start? Firstly, why is he undergoing military preparation?
I’m just glad he managed to make it out of Johannesburg alive, what with the bloodthirsty tribe of South African (or is that Kenyan?) Masai warriors or Zulus or whatever-they’re-called who ritually sacrifice white people at the airport.
The author goes on to say, “I myself had little concerns, spending nights dreaming of only glorious things such as beautiful landscapes, sitting around fires, singing, dancing with indigenous peoples, and even killing a lion.” Having been born in Africa I can tell you that this is pretty much a literal portrait of everyday life everywhere in our country. Growing up, I spent most of my time cooking things on the fire that I shared with my unquantifiably numerous family (last estimates are at around 3,000,000,000 cousins) and summarily executing lions with my bare hands just for shits and giggles. You can imagine my surprise when I came to St Andrews and discovered the watering hole here is called Tesco and, while still practiced, randomly attacking wild animals is apparently not acceptable here (weird).
On to the second entry, which informs the reader "We spent two days swimming in the sea, playing football with street sellers, none of whom had apparently played with white people before." Firstly, what a treat for them! Everyone else in the village/continent can’t have been anything but jel. Secondly, why is this a relevant assumption? And what is the point of informing the reader of it? This constant highlighting of the fact the author and his friends are white is an uncomfortable feature of the articles.
But not as uncomfortable as: "…we rested and most importantly fed, consuming vast quantities of meat. In fact we stuffed ourselves so well (two nights to the point of not being able to stand), that we began to doubt whether this whole famine chat about Africa is just one big joke." What an appropriate sentiment for publication. Countless people are unable to fulfil any ambition but survival on a daily basis for a bit of chat. Even if said in jest, the author is supposed to be engaging in a charitable endeavour and joking about famine seems somehow inappropriate. This attitude speaks volumes to how ‘helping poor people’ is now often used as an excuse for a glorified holiday.
Then, there is: "During a drinks break, Houston, staring out over the dry plains that surrounded us said, ‘Every mile I pray to God for strength, but then I look around me and I realise God left this place a long time ago.’” These statements betray total ignorance of colonial stereotyping and reek of unthinking superiority. At another point, upon running out of water, the author writes “People of any colour were willing to give everything they had to help us; at one time we were fortunate enough to get an iced cold Coke” as though he is shocked that people who aren’t white might not be out to 'harm or at least rob you'.
Yet, the section I found so horrifically neo-colonial that I actually vomited out a warm copy of Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden as if hot off the press was this: “On some occasions we would find a small community of Africans and distribute gifts in return for firewood and security. My mother had persuaded me to take some jewellery [sic] along, handing this out to women along the way gave me much pleasure. The joy and surprise in their faces as I gave it to them saying ‘this is from my mother to you.’” OH. MY. WORD. NO. This must be a joke!! But it isn’t, the man just self-referentially descended from the sky, engulfed in light and delivered a gold bracelet into the mouth of some starving African woman as she sacrificed a baby antelope in his honour.
Finally, there is article three. Unfortunately for the author, he "had a native guide who could barely speak English..." 'Native' is a term so steeped in racist colonial baggage that even the choice of the word is inexplicably offensive. Why not just refer to peoples' nationalities? I doubt that, were he in Europe or New York City, he would refer to the people living there as 'natives'. Why then for Africa? It's offensive and excessively ignorant (see: a map).
Then there is a delightful little story where the ‘natives’ "were very impressed with my tan and I told them that in England we go to hot countries to get darker skin." Thanks for letting them know! Most Africans have never met a white person before; I bet they were really confused as to why he didn't look the same! Glad that's cleared up. Could have been MASSIVELY awkward. The author goes on to conjecture that "The locals must have been slightly amused by the two bickering white idiots who now sat with them" referring to an argument he was having with his friend in front of ‘the locals’. Again, why are they referred to as 'locals' and not by nationality or name? And yeah, I agree, they must have been like OMFGWTF WHITE PEOPLE! LOL ROFLMAO. Because, let's remember, most Africans don't know what white people are and haven't ever heard of them so it must have been really funny and weird. Oh the laughs they must have had.
If that wasn’t ignorant enough, the author relates, in reference to his bike: "I paid African workers to try and fix it…" African workers? I almost don't need to say anything about this. This is certainly among the most neo-colonial of his sentiments. WHERE ARE THEY FROM?! Or are 'African workers' just a homogeneous mass? When he goes on to mention a European in his next paragraph, it is the only time he mentions someone by nationality: "However, at the lodge we were fortunate enough meet a German man called Ingle who was over-landing with his family. Ingle was possibly the most German man I’ve met and was hideously efficient, even more so than my Father." Thankfully, between the wilderness and natives he was able to find a European saviour! Funny that this is the only mention of someone's nationality, showing how the author prioritises the differentiation of European nationalities over African ones. And despite this, he still manages to hideously generalise about this man based on his cultural background.
The point of all this is that it's a shame that The Saint published these stories in the first place. It was only after I alerted a member of the editorial team that the stories were pulled down. As our most prominent student newspaper at this school, The Saint serves as a representation of the students at St Andrews. It does the University a disservice to publish such articles as though they are indicative of the kind of material the average student would find acceptable. They are not. I would like to see The Saint apologise for implicitly endorsing these sentiments by unquestioningly publishing them as a feature. This isn’t just a question of laughing off a few spelling mistakes, it’s an important issue of journalistic integrity and moral responsibility, and it should be taken seriously. Both The Saint and the author should have held themselves to a higher standard.
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