Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Africa: Real and Imagined

As someone of European descent, it’s hard to walk around Africa without being aware of the slave trade, colonialism and the economic power outsiders continue to exert over her countries and her people.  Memories from my childhood about Africa are about slavery as described in Social Studies books, seeing “Roots” on TV, public and not-so-public discussions about race relations in America. 

Given the history, sometimes I wonder why people are still nice to me here. Is it that these were the folks that were left behind – not traumatically uprooted from their families and communities?  Is it that East Africa was not the home of most slaves who went to the U.S.?   Is it that these things would never be spoken about in my presence?  Is it that many are happy to just have my money so they can eat?

And yet, I can’t quite believe that the incredible warmth and welcome I receive so often does not have some authenticity to it.  People are more sophisticated – more aware of the complexities of human behavior and history than one might expect.

Still, the traumatic past of so many parts of Africa leaves its scars.  It’s easy to sit back and wonder why various leaders have been corrupt dictators, ruling with an iron fist and brutality in Sudan, DRC, Uganda, etc. or why “those” tribes are killing each other.  But, societies are like people.  They can’t wake up from torture and abuse and magically do things differently.  Rip apart the fabric of communities, traumatize its people, exploit its natural resources until only crumbs are left to fight over – what do you expect?  People learn what they live.
I know this all might sound quite naive or oversimplified.

What does amaze me is how much Africa has overcome in so many areas.  Also, how vast and diverse it is: Over 50 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.  While some troubled countries make the headlines, there are many at peace.  Here in Zambia (where I've traveled for work) the roads are smooth as silk and the current government is making an effort to get electricity to every part of the country – even the rural towns which might typically be marginalized.  Unlike the stereotypical images from my past, the straw huts coexist with power lines, contemporary office buildings and business meetings held in suits.  Ok, maybe cheesey polyester suits, but suits.

In the big picture it’s only about 50 years since most countries have gained independence from European colonialism. This chapter in Africa's history really is just beginning. Pole pole (slowly, slowly).