More African Impressions



This continues my just-off-the plane post from our return from Africa in late August. Further discussion with political science colleagues, commenters, and students got me thinking more:

1. Where are the Americans and Japanese? To my great surprise, we met very few Americans on the trip. Usually Americans are everywhere when one travels. Being a superpower with bases and businesses around the world, Americans are a fixture of the global tourism industry. So much that the term ‘ugly American’ came about – a vague caricature that we’re monolinguist rednecks, like Sheriff Pepper in the ‘Man with the Golden Gun.’ But I didn’t see too many. In fact, we scarcely saw any Americans. And we didn’t see any black American tourists at all. (I’m not quite sure what to make of that; all the western tourists were white.) Ditto for Japanese. 80% of the tourists we met were Europeans. There were 5 Koreans in our safari trip. And of course, we saw Chinese – not just from all the construction projects, but even tourists too. Chinese tourists, but no Japanese tourists? What a sea-change. Is this a sign of the bite of the Great Recession or disinterest, or what?

2. Africa Time/TIA (this is Africa)/‘It’s always Friday night in Mozambique.’ This was the hardest one to get used to, as you don’t know if it is a real ‘cultural attribute’ you should respect, or just a BS excuse for bad service, endless delays, and cold food.  The last expression came from our South African tour guide in Mozambique; the other 2 are ubiquitous. After a few weeks on the road in Africa, we started using them too. Africa time is the same thing as ‘Latin time,’ as a friend told me they say in Belize. The idea is the ‘we are slower here than you noxious, western city slickers. Life is pleasant, and we enjoy ourselves. So take a load off; drink a beer; and don’t worry. Your bus will show up some time, and you’ll get there eventually.’ TIA gets to the dysfunction of, well,  almost everything. When the bus you paid a lot of money to take breaks down, and you are standing around in the desert for 12 hours getting sunstroke (true story), or when the border guards rip you off for your visa (also true), or there is one clerk at immigration and a 2 hour line at midnight in the outdoor cold (also true), well, this is Africa. Get used to it. Don’t stress or try to fix it. You can’t. And inevitably, you do just give up and go with the flow. You plan that 5-10% of your expenses will be rip-offs where you are overcharged for stuff, because you’re a tourist. You get used to the fact that a sandwich and a Coke take 45 minutes to prepare in a restaurant. When our truck broke down for a whole day in South Africa, the recently-arrived European tourists on our trip got furious and impatient. But my wife and I, after 5 weeks already in-country, were just fine with it. We napped and read, and then watched Weird Al videos all day at the farm of a friend of our driver (yes, that’s true too). And no, the guide never even bothered to suggest that we be compensated for the whole lost day of the tour we paid for. Sigh. TIA…

3. Where is the developmentalism? This observation is as much a product of living in East Asia as it is of visiting Africa. In Korea, you see everywhere the dynamism and energy driving this place. Koreans are obsessed with catching up with the first world, joining modernity, being taken seriously in the G-20 and OECD, etc. To be sure, I was in Africa for only 6-7 weeks, but I didn’t see that vibe at all. I was amazed how much loitering about there was. In countries with 30-40% unemployment, this is inevitable. But the economist in me saw huge wasted labor potential. All those young men just standing around, looking for something to do,and then, inevitably, depressingly, trying to rip me off by changing money on the street with folded notes and other tricks, or harassing me to buy some shoddy overpriced souvenir. And there was so much obvious need for all that unused labor. Streets needed to be cleaned, trash picked up (the amount of litter in southern Africa is astonishing), decaying, half-finished building are everywhere. Nothing made me more sympathetic to the ‘Beijing consensus’ as this trip.

4. They still say ‘coloured.’ This was another big surprise as an American. Raised on strict US political correctness, where you can only say ‘colored’ if you say ‘NAACP,’ it was pretty striking to hear whites say this or that guy is coloured or black. I even heard ‘mulatto.’ But the blacks and ‘coloureds’ talk that way too, so you quickly realize the language of race is a lot more relaxed, and I have to say I kinda liked that. I couldn’t bring myself to say ‘colored;’ I used the more anodyne US ‘mixed.’ But still, compared to the verbal acrobatics Americans go through to talk about race – like ‘European-American,’ – this was kind of refreshing. I found it rather more mature.


6 thoughts on “More African Impressions

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  6. Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve never been to Africa, but I found your description of your tour really interesting!

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