Now, before I start this list, a disclaimer: firsly, I LOVE Africa, even though there are things about it that I don’t like. Secondly, some of the things listed below are also reasons why I love Africa, because they are what makes Africa Africa. Finally, I leave this beautiful continent tomorrow and know I will miss it, so this is my own personal therapy to soften the blow somewhat. Here goes…
1. Being constantly conspicuous because of the colour of my skin
I walk out of my front door and, within seconds am greeted with “Toubabou!” (which means “White person”). I walk down the street, and at least every five minutes, a small child shouts at me: “Toubabou! Give me 100 francs!”
On the edge of the market, a mobile phone card salesman spots me, and calls out: “Orange!” Because I’m white, I must want to buy phone credit, and might not notice him if he doesn’t call out. He is wearing a fluorescent orange vest, mind you, and is standing beneath an orange-coloured parasol in front of a big orange booth (which so has the word “ORANGE” emblazoned across the front). Still, he has to thrust the cards in my face calling out: “Orange! Orange! Orange!” just to be sure I don’t miss him.
At the market, every stall holder is vying for my attention. ” Toubabou, what are you looking for?” “Toubabou, step inside.” “Toubabou, come and look at my jewellery…”
The other day (and by no means for the first time) I was walking towards a T-junction. A taxi passing on the road ahead spied me out the corner of his eye, stopped, then reversed back until he was level with me. “Taxi?!” You see, because I was white, and walking, I must want to get in a car! Sometimes it kind of makes you feel special, but other days I just want to be invisible.
It’s that sound you dread: the traffic policeman had blown his whistle to stop you. “Your papers please!” You know there’s nothing wrong with your papers – or your vehicle for that matter – but experience tells you that he’s likely to give you a hard time in the hope of getting a bribe.
“Your windscreen is cracked, I will have to confiscate your papers.”
The tiny dint in the glass is no more than half an inch across and definitely not grounds for this.
“Or we can try and settle it here and now,” he adds. Sigh! Half an hour of patient pleading later, and the papers are returned. You only have three choices here: have your papers confiscated, wait patiently, or continue to fuel corruption in Africa. Please choose wisely.
They get everywhere, through the tiniest hole in your screening or net. They can buzz annoyingly, give itchy bites and – of course – pass on the biggest killer in sub-Saharan Africa: malaria. And even the non-malarial kind can give you dengue fever. Nasty wee beasties, with no redeeming features I can think of.
4. Dangerous driving conditions
You’re driving through the city, swerving round huge potholes when a taxi overtaking a lorry heads straight towards you. You break and swerve to the side, narrowly avoiding the ditch. Back on the road, and a man is pushing his two-wheeled cart in front of you. You want to overtake, but motorbikes are hurtling past you on both sides. When it’s finally clear, you pass, but have to brake almost immediately: a donkey, its front legs tethered together with string, has strayed into the middle if the road. You break and skid to a halt, inches from its terrified eyes. As you do so, an inattentive motorcyclist collides with your wing mirror, breaking it into pieces. And that’s just a one minute extract of driving in urban Africa!
5. The continent’s continued over-reliance on the West
New tarmacked road in Benin – who build it? The Belgians.
Bamako gets a New Bridge – who paid for it? The Chinese.
Now, these are positive developments, but I wish Africa could take control of its own development, and manage, somehow, to build its own infrastructures. If this doesn’t eventually happen, the whole continent will continue to rely upon the West like it does now, and this fosters a ‘nanny state’ attitude amongst many locals: ‘Not to worry, the West will come and bail us out again soon’. I don’t deny the continent’s poverty, or need for aid, but I wish Africa were able to control and manage its own development more.
6. Not being told the truth
“How long will my meal take?” “Only ten minutes, sir.” An hour later, it arrives.
“When does this bus leave?” “Right away, sir!” Three hours later…
“Here’s some money for a new bike.” “Okay, I will buy one tonight.” Next day, he has no bike, and had given the money to his family.
Africa has a ‘shame and honour’ culture. This means that appearing shameful is the worst thing ever, whilst appearing honourable – even if it means lying – is the desired outcome. This is very frustrating for Westerners and, of course, leads to a greater dishonour in the long run.
7. Political instability
You see it time and again: election season comes and most ex-pats decide it’s a good time to take an extended vacation, just in case. All too often, democracy has failed in Africa; introduced by the West, it is a good system of government in principle. However, it doesn’t tend to fit naturally with African history, culture or the African psyche. And so, elections are held and – often – folk know already who’s going to win. If the ‘correct’ outcome is not achieved, then there is unrest. I’m told that Senegal is the only country in West Africa never to have had a coup d’état.
8. Inverted racism, which puts whites on a pedestal
I ask directions to the nearest electrical store. The chap offers to take me, adding: “We’ll go this way, past my friends’ house. They will be impressed when they see me with a white man.”
Why? What’s the difference? The only difference is that, on average, we’ve had more opportunities. For education, healthcare, transport etc. But why do many Africans still look upon us as ‘better’. Culturally, Africa is much richer than the West, I’d say. And the importance of relationships, family and spending time together is much more accentuated in Africa. We’ve thrown much of that away, in favour of long working hours, making money and materialism. So, Africa, please don’t think that we’re superior; we just have a different history and different priorities.
9. People always asking me for things
This was touched upon in #1, but to many Africans, a white face is like a walking cash point. “They’re white, therefore they have money, therefore I can ask them for some.” After money, the second most common request is for medicines, and in third place is requests for ‘an invitation to your country’. But during my time in Africa, I’ve also been asked for the following:
a drum kit
Sooner or later, you have to learn to say ‘no’.
10. No change in the shops
I don’t even know why this is the case. You go to buy a loaf of bread for 300 francs. You give them a 1,000 franc note. They look at you (almost disgusted) and say: “Have you got 200 francs?”
“No, I haven’t.” There’s a long pause, then the reply:
“We have no change.” Some shops will say they’ll give you it next time, others will – eventually – go next door and try to find change. One supermarket used to give sweets out instead of change! Crazy, but there you have it.
Rob’s book, ‘Adventures in Music and Culture’ is available on Amazon in the USA and the UK. Also worldwide in Kindle format.