A Travellerspoint blog

On People

Getting to understand Africa, its many customs and its sometimes subtly different, sometimes harshly different, ways of life, along with its marked successes and its well publicised problems is a difficult task. The world is westernising: and why not? Getting up at day break to perform manual work on a field that lacks fertility only to have your harvest destroyed periodically by drought, flood or pestilence is not only backbreaking, it is beyond the physical and mental capabilities of ninety percent of the British public. The chance of leaving such a life behind, the chance of working in a city and earning a, albeit meager, living is too much to ignore. Africa is a dichotomy of rapidly growing cities largely embracing western ideals contrasted with agricultural subsistence living in some of the poorest regions of the world.

It’s a little more complicated than I’ve insinuated but as us foreigners visit the vast ‘country’ of Africa, as so many of us see it, we’re returning home to report that Africans have sold out, that the Himba all have mobile phones, the Maasai all want a dollar for their picture to be taken and that one in ten men of the continent are wearing a premier league football club jersey. There is a distinct feeling that western tourists expect an animal hide adorned and spear wielding tribesman who lives from the earth, sleeps in a thatched mud hut and hunts with ‘circle of life’ morals to feed his family; this family are probably split into those carrying pots on their heads and those washing in a crystal clear river, their phosphate laced powder having no environmental impact on the picture. The truth is that life starts early in Africa. An eight year old boy may spend his days herding goats; in his home it would not be uncommon for him to tend the fire and cooking pot. The daughter may be looking after the new born, changing nappies and providing entertainment whilst mother is pounding maize or gutting fish. In England the idea of children so young taking on so much responsibility is unheard of. An eight year old working alone for twelve hours a day? Someone would go to prison. If the tribesman previously mentioned has chosen to continue living his cultural beliefs and traditions then perhaps he is leather adorned, but his other couture may well involve Indian fabric, plastic Chinese manufactured beads and a pair of trainers made anywhere in the Far East. His family may well still live in a mud hut, with either a gas cooker inside or, more commonly a charcoal fire, ensuring the continual deforestation of the continent. If there is a river nearby and if it has water running along it then it is probably brown with silt. Women will be washing their clothes in it but depending on how many others are living around this settlement the river will be anything from fresh flowing brown water to stagnant pools of foetid scum surfaced water. Washing powder packets strewn on the banks and the remnants of defecation hanging on the humid still air that lingers around such places. There are a lot of people in Africa without access to piped water and without access to sanitation facilities.

To borrow a quote from Niall Fergusson and first written by Thomas Hobbs, “[The life of a hunter-gatherer] ...is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Compare this existence to a nine to five on the shores of Great Britain. You’re in work and the money slips straight into a bank account that probably provides you with credit card and overdraft facilities for when you really need money. This money can be spent in a supermarket around the corner that not only sells fresh produce but guarantees it will always be there and more over sells clothes at prices that are as cheap as anywhere else on the planet. In addition there is a doctor around the corner, he’s busy and you’d certainly be better off with an appointment, but he’s free. And what’s more, if you need medicine, he’ll ensure you get it all for the equivalent cost of one or two hours work on a minimum wage. England wouldn’t exist if the efficiencies of large scale agriculture hadn’t taken over from small scale subsistence farming. Life as we know it couldn’t exist without readily available building materials, banking and credit facilities, medicines and above all consumerism and the money with which to revel in it.

As Africa modernises, we’re driving through it and we’re getting the briefest glimpse of it. People exist in countries whose leaders insist on making decisions that cut the countries income by two fifths (Malawi.) People exist in dictatorships where once hugely productive agriculture has been retarded into semi subsistence agriculture run by unskilled ‘war veterans’ (Zimbabwe) and most Africans live in a country besieged by corruption, men become leaders and leaders become millionaires by unjustly using the powers of office. Funds are diverted, huge contracts are divvied out amongst family members and the country suffers even more as crucial investments in education, health and infrastructure are postponed or prevented altogether.

And then we appear; tourists in our big cars with fridge freezers worth a year’s salary, suitcases full of clothes and wallets with pieces of plastic that allow us to buy hundred dollar safaris, expensive hotels, steaks worth a week’s salary, beer, wine, ice cream, fast food, more clothes, jewellery, you name it we’ll buy it. The Horn of Africa has a food crisis and thousands are literally starving to death. But there is food there; there is food all over Africa, you just have to be rich enough to afford it.

Travelling through so many countries you can’t help but compare the peoples of each to their neighbours. Whilst in a country a sense of feeling towards the locals is developed. Once you have left this feeling matures and settles to form a final opinion. Our opinions have been, certainly in Mozambique and Malawi, formed based on all of our interactions with people within that country and that has biased us away from understanding the actual population. There are five types of people with whom interaction takes place: the immigration officials, the police, sellers of goods (including money changers,) ex-patriots (including the subsequent generations who still hold their ancestors values) and genuine locals.

The first to dissect are the immigration officials; they invariably one of two things: pleasant or trying it on. In addition, they are almost always bored. Their influence on our opinion has rarely been extreme, but they are the first faces you see in the new country and with them come the fear of having your car pulled apart, your alcohol removed and every dubious purchase combed finely for a reason to impose duty or confiscation. The greatest benefit is that as well as almost always being bored, they are almost always reluctant to examine the car too thoroughly. Whether smiling or frowning, process, and life, is easier when expedited. The nice officers make you feel at ease, the others can be anything from absent of expression to downright intimidating. None the less they are our first impression.

The second in line are the police. They have the power to stop you, to fine you, to enforce laws like the necessity of having two luminous vests at hand, to take your belongings if deemed ‘illegal’ and to create offences in order to procure bribes. (I have not experienced the latter, though Laura has been stopped for trespassing on ‘Presidential property.’) There also seems to be lots of them. Bad experiences with officials of any sort shouldn’t sour us to a country but when they’re being publicly humiliating and you’re asked to empty your car at a busy road side whilst being informed that they will have to confiscate some of your belongings, it is incredibly difficult to not feel any bitterness. Being stopped repeatedly and then asked to present any combination of passport, driving license, car papers, warning triangles (two of them,) fluorescent jackets (again two,) fire extinguisher (within its expiry date and close to hand) and first aid kit (imagine what you will as for the ‘required contents.’) Meanwhile a crabbing over laden lorry crawls past with seven men clinging on to its roof, its bald tyres wobble along the road, its wheels are secured to its axles by magic dust and the smell of worn clutch and hot brakes hangs in the air; all whilst a white Land Cruiser with blacked out windows overtakes the lorry across a solid white line at about 100km/h. But your police officer takes pride in his work and he is lasciviously searching his eyes across everything in your vehicle. These officers are few and far between, the majority are only doing their job and are understandably curious of what gadgets you have, but when you come across a bad guy he can erase a hundred good guys, it is very difficult to not let him sour your opinion of a countries police force.

Thirdly are the sellers of goods. Broadly speaking they are the money changers and the curios artisans. The money changers start their touting before you’re even in their country. There are lots of them and you’ll know who they are; because they’re the ones who have to take a step backwards when you force open your car door. They compete against each other chasing a margin that is quite a few percent more than is fair, that’s how the system works after all; but if they’re the first to speak to you then it is seen as a binding contract. If you don’t deal with the first guy, even if someone offers a preferable rate, the changer will not only be highly insulted but he’ll also be vociferously aggressive towards you. So the changers want to change your currency; they mostly just want to relieve you of two or three percent but some would sooner steal it; but, above all if you don’t let them change your money they will not be happy.

Part B of the third group is that of the sellers of curios. They are perhaps the individuals with most reason to barter aggressively. They are in the most competitive market, with the tightest margins and quite often they are the most desperate. They are highly skilled; sculpting remarkably accurate globes of the earth, sculpting all of Mother Nature’s creatures out of the hardest woods on the planet even producing hippos as heavy as a man (as distinguished creatures such as Joseph can attest to,) others paint, some sing. When it comes to buying we all expect to barter; it’s part of the game. The problem arises with assessing value. When you walk into the market place it is an oversupplied one. There are too many competitors offering the same goods with too few buyers. You are offered a price that is high to the point of extortion. Of course you know that you won’t pay that price but if you enquire as to its validity you’ll be told that the sculptor has sold plenty of the items at that price before now. That, for me, is where the relationship can begin to sour. A buyer and seller are bound by a certain amount of trust. Trust that it is a genuine sale, trust that the price will reflect the actual value of the item, trust that both parties will finish satisfied. Lying to achieve a sale may be a sign of desperation, it may be a sign of my over rating my western values, but it is my money and they are my values.

In the face of such an inflated price tag it is difficult not to become competitive; it is easy to think that the higher the start price the lower you’ll set your upper limit; in most of these situations either the buyer is king or the seller goes hungry. The aggression of selling, being surrounded by five men all trying to place their goods ahead of their neighbours, to the point where their goods may not be ‘in’ your face, but they are touching it, can make the transaction far more stressful.

Naturally the game begins when a potential purchaser shows any interest in an object. Interest means a potential sale and it would be silly for a man walking the breadline to allow such a prospective sale to pass. This is fair to a point but when the seller insists on crowding you once you’ve declined interest; if he goes further and he becomes aggressive or dismissive because you’re not interested then the affair takes a turn for the worse. If an object has a value of ten dollars but the seller is asking one hundred dollars then it is only fair for us to start at one dollar; we’re talking the same degree of difference. But logic isn’t always seen in a cold light and when he gets angry because he comes down twenty dollars and we go up only two he thinks it’s grossly unfair and he tells us. When you’re finally bartering over a dollar or two, it is time to hand over the money; after all, one dollar is of no real significance to anybody traveling in Africa. It is certainly of more significance to the guy who is about to earn it. But bartering gets boring; it’s tiring. Especially when everything you buy is bartered for, it can become very tedious. Shopping is done not at one supermarket but at ten different stalls, any of which may add on a little ‘foreigner’s tax.’ (This situation feels most fraught when you are new in a country and have no idea what the true price should be.)

(This is not to say that ‘foreigner’s tax’ is imposed by all. Some of our nicest experiences have been in dealing with honest market holders who are all too happy to find out about you whilst you peruse their aubergines, they ensure that you get their best produce, they’ll tell you when its best for eating (‘that one is a two day pineapple’) and they’ll even go as far as throwing in a few extras to make certain everyone leaves happily.)

The other side to this is the argument that why shouldn’t we pay more? The difference in cost may be us paying twelve pence per potato instead of eight pence. This may or may not add up to a significant amount of money and I’m in no doubt that the buyer abroad is never the poorer party at an African village market stall; but surely an honest set-up caters either to the tourist crowd adjusting prices upwards accordingly or it caters to the masses. If you are dealing with the latter and I visit your stall then I should be subject to the same prices as everyone else; if I am discriminated against due to my status as foreigner (for whatever reason be it skin colour, language barrier, attire or the car I’m driving, or in fact, any combination of these,) then I’m suffering what is tantamount to racism. Sitting next to a local who has just paid two fifths of the amount I have for a cup of tea from the same seller is unfair, even if we’re talking 16 cents versus 40. The feeling of being cheated is created and the mutual trust is lost; the buyer-seller relationship is gone. No one should have the purchase price adjusted in line with their wealth as they walk into a shop.

The fourth group are the ex-patriots. The term ‘ex-pat’ stereotypes the entire group essentially into émigrés from the western world. They like the food you like, they’ve experienced the things you have, communication is easy and they have a culture that is, broadly speaking, the same as yours. They are mostly very hospitable (the majority that we’ve come across are in the hospitality industry) and they see the world like you. They can advise on avoiding the local bad guys and they can point you in the direction of the good ones. I’m biased of course, but they are often a safe haven; they are bays of comfort in the sea of the unknown. Their influence on our perceptions of the country comes not from how they act but from the stories they tell and the way they treat their staff (the latter a telling insight into the economic comfort of the ‘ex-pat’) there are still plenty around with a degree of racism in their attitudes towards their fellow countrymen but there are far more of the liberal variety, people who understand why their neighbours are unable to access proper education, unable to get work, then unable to get higher salaried work and unable to access the quality of healthcare that Europe has become accustomed to.

The final group should be the only group that influences us. They are after all, the country. If I had a little more patience, and was a little less quick to judge, if I was more unassuming and entered every situation as if I were facing a blank canvas I may not find the police and the sellers quite so frustrating and I may then enter any social situation with nothing but a keen interest and ‘joie de vive.’ The truth is that it has taken this long to realise these things. Whatever happens with the former groups they must not influence your interaction with the final group. The final group bear the suffering imposed by inadequate governance and miss-spent funds. Yes they might use the beach as a toilet and yes they throw plastic bottles into the street and they burn down forests for fuel and they have multiple sexual partners without taking any precautions but most of this is because they don’t have working toilets, waste disposal services, they can’t get cheap fuel anywhere else and contraception is taboo or unavailable, there may have been little or no sex education, multiple partners exist in all societies not just the polygamous ones and then there is always the fact that sometimes men and women just get ‘lost in the moment.’ Intercourse with an HIV positive individual doesn’t guarantee its transmission, intercourse between heterosexual individuals neither guarantees a baby. At least one person we’ve spoken to so far explained that he hadn’t expected to get his girlfriend pregnant first time.

But for all the circumstances not in their favour, the final group are the people. They are the friendly eyes with smiles baring more teeth than you ever thought possible; they are the beads of sweat spilling off a man’s back, his muscles bursting through his skin as he pulls an ox cart single handed up hill, loaded with his living; it’s the lady who looks up from her washing and smiles wider with her warmly penetrating eyes than her mouth, it’s the old man who doffs his flat cap when you greet him in the road; they are the singing dancing frolicking children that just want to talk, just want to touch your skin, just want to hold your hand when you walk down the road; the same children who burst into excitement and fervor when you imitate their dancing; they are the queues that form outside the hospital two days before the medicine truck arrives and they are the men carrying a coffin for ten kilometres through mountain passes to get it back to their village where its future resident awaits. So many of these people live on incomes that we would find impossible. How can you blame a man when he asks for a dollar or two for a necklace he’s made? How can you blame a man who asks for a dollar or two because he’s hungry or for a dollar because he’s crippled and there is no support system? The children who’ve learnt to outstretch their hands and squeal ‘gimme money’ are frustrating but they are only repeating a mantra that has been handed down over successive generations, and no doubt it is an action that has been rewarding at some point in the past. We can’t give every man a dollar and neither should we, but neither should we look down on him because he asks. These people are in high definition Technicolor with surround sound. They are the happy and the sad, the sweet and the sour, the life and soul of any country and they alone should be used to judge a countries’ people; and like I say, it’s only just dawned on me.

Posted by ibeamish 05:00 Archived in Malawi

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