A few funny stories for you today. Imagine a white dude, wearing cut off denim shorts, on a obviously western mountain bike (Not the Chinese stuff locals have), on a street of an obscure town in West Africa.
At one point in our lives we lived in Abengougou, Ivory Coast, about 220 kilometers into the interior of the country. This was certainly not tourist country in the mid 1990’s. One rarely saw a tourist in this part of the former french colony. When you did see a tourist they were very likely to be French folks, since french was spoken in Ivory Coast.
I have discovered that encountering a local white face ruins the Africa experience for some traveling people. They seem to arrive on the continent perpetuating this silly idea that I am going to see the “wilds” of Africa. I am going to visit towns and villages where few, if any, white people dare to ventured into. Places like this do exist, but 99.9% of tourists never actually get to any of these places.
Yet, there you are, an obviously white Canadian. As they travel through, they come across you, as you work in a village, while buying something at the market, or while biking around the town, and some of these tourists just can’t seem to acknowledge that you exist.
Most tourist people are great and will speak and chat for minute or two. But you run into these odd folks where your presence seems to be an encroachment of their “wild” experience.
You can see white people in cars and buses because they glow inside the cab. I remember one stretch of time where I had not seen another white person for almost four months and while driving on the highway one day a vehicle approached me and I could see the whiteness glowing in the cab of the 4*4 Mitsubishi Pajero a half a kilometer away. I waved like a fool. It is rather nice to speak English with a person from time to time when you bump into them. From time to time a white face would show up in our town for their Africa experience and I always enjoy meeting new people and hearing their travel stories.
I had just hopped on my bike to head to the market in Abengourou and a small tour bus (Some all inclusive tourist charter company from Abidjan) was approaching the stop sign by my house. I could see eight to ten white heads in it, and it was such an unusual sight to see a tour bus in our region that I stopped to wave at them. I remember one particular man looking out the window showing brief signs of surprise at seeing me, but, when I waved at him from ten feet away, his face quickly went expressionless again, and his gaze was unflinching from then on, he look past me like I did not exist. Thinking he did not see me the first time, I waved a second time. No response, he kept looking past me. No white person (I thought it rather strange) on that bus would acknowledge my welcome wave. But of course the Ivorian bus driver waved with a smile.
Now, here is where the story gets really humorous. I guess this bus was touring the various streets and alleys of Abengourou, I suppose, to show the simplicity of the “remote” towns in Ivory Coast, and that same little mini bus , once again, stopped beside me while I was in the market buying some hardware stuff. I waved at the white heads a second time, with a big Canadian grin. Several of the whities (Toubab) saw me, how could you not, with my white glow, and I could see, once again, their initial surprised expressions at my presence there. Again, no one acknowledged my wave and smile, both of which were even more expressive this time because I was beginning to think they were being a little ridiculous. The bus driver waved back once again, and he to was grinning now, as he knew what was unfolding in the back.
But the best part of the story yet was as I pedaled down a back dirt street, heading for a friends house, I saw them for a third time. This time I was the only person on that street. They were weaving slowly down the bumpy street at a crawl. They all saw me. I now realized what was going on. They were not the “Only White People” here. I was ruining their wild Africa experience. They might accept seeing a white person in the capital city. But 220 km north, in the interior of the country, now way. I did not fit the narrative in their head.
Of course I did what any self-respecting Canadian would do. I stopped my bike and began waving with both hands, arms flapping like a lunatic, all grins and smiles, just to mock them a bit. The bus driver was getting the deepest joy out of it all and was grinning from ear to ear, and gave me a knowing head nod as he passed by just five feet from me. Those tourists were troupers; every single one of them was able to firmly not acknowledge my presence, not with an expressive look, grin, nor a wave back.
This happened in Mali one time as well about five years ago. Where, in our town, we see even fewer tourists than we experienced in Ivory Coast. A guy was buying a drum in a little street side shop. and he was banging on it to try it out. I saw his white head glowing there, as I was walking through the market. Me, wearingmy Malian boubou outfit, approached the young man to say hello. He looked the other way as I came up to him. I said hello anyway, and he said nothing and kept tapping the drum. I greeted him a second time thinking he might not have heard me, and his Malian guide, knowing this was rude (Well at least to an African it is. Maybe not to a traveling American or Parisian Youth) said to the young man in his mid twenties, “He is greeting you, don’t you hear him?” He looked at me for half a second, said hello and turned his head away and kept banging. He wanted nothing to do with me. Which is fine.
I had the greatest chat with his guide for about five minutes. Delightful fellow. He asked about me about my life there in Mali, and I asked about his life etc. I wish I could have chatted longer with him. I shook his hand and blessed his journey Malian style, and nodded a good bye gesture to the young man, who saw it, but again glanced away.
Most people are wonderful. However, from time to time you encounter these folks who are in the “wilds” of Africa, and they want to think they are immersed so deep with the locals, that people like me ruins their illusion, their illusion that this immersion rarely happens where they are visiting. They are traveling “so intense”, after all.
It’s all rather foolish if you ask me. But I can’t help myself. I’ll always be that clumsy Canadian who walks up to greet you; this is why I find people like this I suppose, I actually approach most white people in the market to say hello -because they are so few) – I do not wait to speak to only those who will approach me first. I am the one looking for a good conversation with a genuine desire to wish you well on your journey. I truly hope you find what you are looking for in Africa.
However, if you insist on being an asshole like that when I approach you, I will laugh at you, as I leave you be (I know them in 1/8 of second now – they look away at any sign of eye contact). It really is just immaturity and naivety about the world, about Africa, and about life in general. This is why I never take such encounters personally.
A tip for you “intense” backpackers passing through towns in West Africa. You are not the first, you are not the only, but you might be the first time a local Toubab has had the opportunity to speak English outside his home in three months. He or she does not know the news from home. Be a decent human, and say hello. They live there year in and year out. They are doing something harder and more “intense” than you ever will as a tourist. Your little conversation might just help cheer them up to carry on. It’s not only about your experience in Africa. Think about the experience you share with those in Africa. Give something back as you travel, be they locals or the crazy looking expats you encounter.
These old memories of my life in Africa were triggered while reading this passage from one of the best travel books I have ever read.
“But let us leave the contemplation of the river for a while, stream into the first class dining saloon, drink coffee with bread and marmalade, and then go back on deck to meet our traveling companions. If we don’t find them quite as interesting as we had hope, at least we will have the delight of speaking to them in a common tongue. Except for the three classy passengers, of course, who have found their own language quite good enough since they will be interested only in speaking to themselves
What we will also know is that they are French and that coming from a superior culture, no, coming from the only culture country in the world, there is no reason to accept anything that does not meet their discriminating standards…
“They will have little to do with this trip or at least this trip is I conceived it; in fact they have already made their most dramatic move and have gotten the toilets locked against us. By noon of that first day, appalled by the food, the lack of a decent table wine at meals, and the crudities of river travel, they have offered to pay double passage and have been moved to VIP quarters on the top deck. They will continue to eat the same unfortunate food but alone with the captain after the rest of us….. Everything will be the same for them except that by paying double they have made a social statement and have been isolated above us with the master of the ship in a cabin, which, under the full blast of the sun, by three o’clock will begin to glow incandescently……
They will be an unseen presence on the ship, though we will be constantly aware of their aura. Their cultured vibrations clash discordantly in that emptiness of river and sky through which we are drifting and we feel that they have not earned the right to so easily penetrate this carboniferous world of three hundred million years ago. They are like drunks in church; they are having an experience that will mean little to them and that they will remember only as that week of the barbarous cooking and the badly ventilated stateroom.”
– Moritz Thomsen. The Saddest Pleasure. A Journey On Two Rivers.