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.

48 thoughts on “More African Impressions

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  10. Africa is a continent!!! It’s rally disappointing that in the 21st century, it is still being referred too as a country. Especially by someone who appears to be well traveled!


    • Exactly. Just don’t understand the sheer ignorance of this. There are 50+ African countries and they are very diverse in economies, cultures, etc. He sees one or two scenes in a certain African country and then it’s, “this is Africa!” I can go to the many trailer parks and poorer areas in the south of the US and other states and see people hanging around doing nothing and I wouldn’t be so dense to deem the whole country this way, let alone the whole continent.

      There’s so many beautiful areas in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, and more. There’s bustling economies in the telecommunications industry in some of the countries. There’s great nightlife and food life.
      This blog was so one minded. It seemed to find what it was already looking for.


    • Oh get over it. He said “in country” like a million other people would. Big deal. How about you comment on the interesting parts of the article instead of focusing on the negative?


    • I agree with you and we Africans are also to be blame, I am so proud naming my country Nigeria anywhere I go and not Africa as my country.


  11. “Colored” doesn’t always mean “mixed” in Africa. It is also applied to middle-Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bengals, etc.)


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  14. Ignorant. Africa is a continent. And if everyone else in America has a hyphen then white people should too. European-American explains where you came from like everyone else. You wouldn’t see this if you still see white people as “default” Americans though.


    • He doesn’t refer to Africa as a country. It is clear he is visiting the continent in other terms he uses, such as “southern Africa.” One would speak as broadly if one were traveling in Europe — it would all still be Europe, even as one moves from country to country within it. This is your projection of an issue, not his presentation of one.


  15. Others have said but it bears repeating. Africa is a continent! How can you generalize about an entire continent by visiting a few countries. Shame on you.


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      • America is not a continent . There is a continent of North America and one of South America, with the isthmus of Central America bridging them. It happens that it is indeed the name of the U.S. — you know, the United States of AMERICA. It has been referred to just as America for at least 400 years, so this is hardly a new thing. The whole set of North, Central, and South America have been referred to as “the Americas,” but no other county in those continents actually have America in the name of the country. So it still really is America.


      • See, everything has a different point of view depending of many variables. Dividing America in two continents is the position of the US academics to not recognize America as a continent. For all the countries in America (from the Rio Bravo to the South) there are 6 continents: Africa, Europe, Asia, America, Oceania, and the Antarctica. For us, North America, Central America and South America are sub-continents of the American continent. In fact, America as a continent was labeled the first time 500 years ago. But, this will not change the fact that US people call your country America, and I really do not care. The point I wanted to make is that people easily call others ignorant not reading exactly what others wrote or using debatable statements like the one by Anonymus: “Fucking stupid Americanistic article, AFRICA IS A CONTINENT.” that causes in 19 countries the same effect he is criticizing.


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  20. This blogger is showing racist gnorance with words such as:

    “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.’

    And in his entire #4 writings.

    He shows how the ‘real’ American is white and then there’s the ‘black American’. That would go for the rest of us ‘colored Americans’ as separate and distinct from the ‘American’. This is why white Americans can tell us other Americans to go back where we came from because they are rather divorced from the fact that they too come from somewhere else. Thus using EuroAmerican is the real ‘mature’ way, ‘politically correct’ way to say who they are because we are all Americans. Why do they not specify where they came from while the rest of us do?

    But according to his syntax, his assumption is that the term American means white.

    As for ‘mature’ or what does he call it? ‘Relaxed’ vs. ‘Acrobatics’ – no it’s called ‘internalized racism’ on the part of non-whites who have been colonized. And, all us ‘colored’ people (his preferred term) have been shamed into internalized racism.

    So if you are going to write blogs about race, get your own head on straight about who you are and your own history in this country called America! Will you be calling your children ‘colored’?


    • How? He is saying that he didn’t see any “Americans” and then naming a subgroup of “Americans”. How is that racist? I’m black and I see what he means. The general category is Americans and the sub-category is black Americans. If I went to Africa, I’d think I’d see Americans since Americans do tend to travel everywhere. At the very least, is hope to see black Americans (of the many ethnicities of Americans) in whatever country I was in in Africa. That is how I read it.


  21. Gees people I think they know Africa is a continent. I see mention of Mozambique and South Africa. Both countries locared in Africa. By the way my family and I are planning a trip to Europe. Also a continent. As someone who has been to Africa, I have only visited a few countries. Neither Mozambique or South Africa were one of the countries that I visited while traveling the African Continent.


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  23. Interesting how “different people” keep mysteriously popping up – just in time – on every new comment taking umbrage with something in this 6 year old post, to defend the author. Lol, pathetic.


    • And making a comment on a 6 years old post just to say that other people are pathetic ? How to describe that ? In your med school, you should go to the psy section, there are names for the behaviour of people like you


  24. Hilarious viral videos aside, reading this ‘blog’ entry did not inspire confidence in this man’s reliability as an ‘expert’ (as someone who has had experience of this industry, I am aware that the news channels often don’t care about the quality of experts and just take whoever is able to go on air at that point in time). If this was a deep-thinking political scientist, he would have been able to produce thoughtful reasons why he didn’t see “developmentalism” in the part of Africa he experienced. Historical differences between Africa and Asia, impact of colonialism, etc. Whether he intended to or not, he’s basically making a racist argument here — ‘Africans’ are somehow lazier and less motivated than Asians… Very dodgy. Also his impressions show a classic American-centric viewpoint which should have been rooted out during even a basic education in critical thinking.


    • Underemployment and laziness are different things. One is the product of social institutions and aggregated decisions, the other depends on individuals.
      You even have self contradiction in your post, since for underemployment, you mention deep roots, such as history or colonialism, which most of living African never experienced themselves. Then the causes of the situation are far outside the scope of individual decisions and attitudes.
      He doesn’t talk himself of laziness, since he talks about “All those young men just standing around, looking for something to do”. Lazy people are not looking for something to do.
      You don’t seem to be very smart, so why do you engage in such direct and unqualified criticism ?


  25. Another reflection — there is surprisingly no attempt to understand the lack of black American tourists (if that was indeed the case; how is he making a judgment about who is a tourist and who isn’t?) — e.g. a very basic reason could be the fact that black Americans, as a group, are likely to have less disposable income to spend on holidays in faraway places than white Europeans as a group.


    • Are you arguing that black american, as a group, have less disposable income than chinese, as a group, which seems to be present ?


  26. Because, there are so many developping people in the world than developped people. That is why you saw so many Chinese and Korean.


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