Some Thoughts on Exoticism

As a young European woman living in Africa and writing about my everyday life, I have a problem. I am at a major risk of exoticizing my own experience.

We “northerners” tend to imagine Africa, a continent thrice the size of Europe, as a more or less monolithic entity, represented by certain symbols. Journalist Eliza Anyangwe shows us just how much we rely on sterotypes when portaying Africa and Africans in this video published by The Guardian:

I always wondered why “the Band Aid boys” thought that people in Africa didn’t know it was christmas time. What an extremely ignorant and Eurocentric thing to ask, considering Christianity is very present on the continent, in fact being one of the two largest religions. And how about that assumption that everyone should know and care about some dude being born 2,000 years ago in the Middle East? So what if they didn’t know it?

Back to my own dilemma. Of course I don’t want to portray Nairobi as a place where it’s always acacia trees at sundown, half naked ladies dancing savagely, or potbellied children circled by flies. That would not only be horrible, it would also be horribly inaccurate.

Nairobi is a modern African city with a growing economy and an increasingly educated population. I meet young Kenyans, digital natives, ambitious, creative and open-minded – it’s not actually that different from Berlin in that respect.

But then there are also things that are very different. I have never experienced such ethnic diversity, with most people considering themselves part of a certain tribe. I have never lived in a nation with such an obvious gap between the richest and the poorest. I have never before seen a construction site where people were still using pickaxes and spades rather than big, motorized machines.

How do I deliver these observations without exoticizing my surroundings? Aren’t some facts so interesting precisely because they seem so different, strange, even bizarre to us?  All I can say is: I am trying my best not to fall into the trap. To keep an open mind, not be blinded by stereotypes and express my honest view as best I can. Is that enough to do Kenya and its people justice? You be the judge of that.

I want to end this blog post with my translation of an ethnological description, inspired by my fellow blogger Alice. It is taken from the introduction of a book by Noah Sow:

I am originally from a country whose degree of civilisation was sneered at and taken note of patronizingly by many Western states not too long ago. Unsurprisingly so: For instance, not too far from here, there were still some tribes who painted (!) and collected the skulls of their deceased children.

My grandmother, an indigenous woman, had sixteen siblings. The water was naturally coming from the village well, not from the tab like today. When it rained every once in a while, the water was collected diligently. Hardly anybody in the village had access to electricity. Even today, we are fighting the problems that are typical for our area. Corrupt politicians, ethnical conflicts (not surprisingly, since my country’s frontiers have never been the same for longer than two generations), high debts, and so on. Over the past few decades, however, my country has taken a huge step forward. By now, it is quite stable politically, and it can be proud of certain things [selection]:

For ten years [state of 2008] we have had exhaustive nationwide landline telephone connections. This was hardly conceivable until well into the 1990s.

One episode of military dictatorship that some tribal areas had reverted to for a while, was brought to an end successfully and without bloodshed (!).

The biggest challenge we were faced with when we were civilized (which we were admittedly coerced into by exterior forces), was probably our approach to democracy. Today, we are mastering this task in an exemplary manner. Even though we were forced into doing the right thing, we have been able to achieve a spectacularly positive economic and sociopolitical trend, based not least on years of ample deliveries of relief aid, state building development aid and also the military presence of advanced, mostly western states. Our new frontiers that, like in so many African countries, have been drawn not by our own state, but rather by other countries’ governments, were even officially recognized by our government in 1990.

The country the author is talking about is, of course, Germany. So much for exoticizing others.

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