On African travel bloggers and why our travelogues matter
Travel and see
was a popular saying where I grew up.
It was often spewed out by people to signify the benefits of getting out of your local environs to explore or “see” what else was on offer elsewhere. The distance of that travel did not matter. Whether from the village to the city or from the city to another country. All travel was travel. The act of traveling is nothing new. After all, our ancestors had started it, when some of them moved from Africa 70,000 years ago. They, the original travel writers and bloggers, used cave and rock paintings to pass on information. We now use our Macs and DSLRS through the world wide web to document our travelogues or travel literature.
Our ancestors decendants’ tenterhooks now spread all over the world. In Asia, Europe, the Americas and in the Arab world they have built nations and cultures which now seem incredibly different to ours. Naturally they have produced their own
travel writers and bloggers with their own unique perspectives. A quick search on google on “travelling in Africa” for example will bring up results on “safaris” and “tribal life” none of which is particularly familiar to, dare I say it, most Africans. I do not know any Africans with an intense clamour to see
a lion roar or an elephant wade through the lands. Watching masaais hurl themselves up only for gravity to show them i’m king does not particularly get me going like hanging out at the cinema to see a new movie by Lupita Nyongo or one directed by Shirley Frempong Manso. Flying out from wherever I find myself – Nairobi, Cape Town, Kampala or Lagos to partake in the annual Chale Wote festival in Accra is as normal to me as spending time with friends in a local restaurant in Accra. I do not fault travel bloggers who focus on safaris and tribal life. That is their perspective of what they believe Africa to be mostly about.
The question I find most intriguing and one that has an effect on our impact as African travel writers and bloggers is – What is our (African) perspective? Even within a region like Africa there is a myriad of nations, cultures, languages, religions, races and classes. To add another dimension, there is also a strong contingent of folks who hail from outside the borders of Africa, but share certain ascriptive characteristics such as skin colour with continental Africans. They also have their own unique perspective. There is a growing consciousness of creating travelogues that depict the continent differently. Africainwords.com has an article – Traveling and writing Africa from within – that expands on this area.
My particular interest is in the African travel writer’s and blogger’s perspective as we travel to create travelogues outside our continent. Do we fall into the trap of focusing on the equivalent of the “safaris” and “tribal lives” of where we go? My heart sinks when I go onto so called travel blog run by self-acclaimed travel writers only to find photos, admittedly incredibly awe inspiring ones, of “travel jumps” and a poor commentary of the place. Commentary, I might add, that adds nothing to the body of literature that already exists and gives the world and Africa nothing to add to our inheritance.
We are different, not necessarily by choice. We place ourselves in places where our scant numbers make us more visible than white and Asian travellers. Even within our own continent, if I were given a dollar for every time I was called Obama in Marrakesh, Morocco, i’d be rich by now. In Istanbul on no less than 3 or 4 occasions, in the space of 4 days, I became the reluctant star actor in other peoples’ selfies. Although most of these experiences were at most an irritation, in Wroclaw, Poland and other places the stares were uncomfortable to say the least. In Madrid, Spain, their perception of and attitude to my blackness made me vow never to step foot there again. By placing ourselves against a landscape so emphatically foreign and sometimes dangerous our experiences inevitably become shaped differently to that of a non-African of a different race. In other words, whether we like it or not, in most places outside and sometimes within Africa, the African blogger and travel writer becomes an outsider, easily spotted by his or her ascriptive characteristics and must define himself without contrast to others.
This brings me to my central point. Why are our travelogues and the blogs that convey them essential? Why do they matter? I must start by stating emphatically and unashamedly that I call myself an African travel writer for a reason. I do so because I feel a responsibility to use my travelogues to highlight injustice, to praise where necessary and above all to serve as a guide for fellow Africans and whoever else may find them useful. I expect Africans to at least try fish and chips and afternoon tea when they are in England, but I will also tell you where the best African restaurants are hidden in London should you care to have a bit of home abroad! I could tell you that contrary to what I read in the mainstream press about Cuba, I did not find or see the hyper destitution and subjugation of blacks I was warned about. I did not cocoon myself in a resort as most visitors to Cuba tend to do. With the exception of Guantanamo Bay, I travelled the length of the island meeting and hanging out with the locals. I could tell you that if you think Africa has a poverty problem, then try living in Dakar, Bangladesh, except we never hear about that, do we? I was born and bred on the African continent, but I do not subscribe to the notion that other non-African born or even non-black could not empathise or understand my unique perspective.
The Western world has Marco Polo and the Arabs have Ibn Battuta to thank for their immense knowledge of other countries. These two, through their travelogues, triggered such a great interest in travel amongst their people.
Even Christopher Columbus, as prejudiced and deplorable as some of his actions towards native populations were, he was instrumental in using his travelogues to change the world. Is it a surprise that these forefathers of European and Arab travellers had a rather large hand in the respective development of their home nations? Marco Polo is reputed to have brought sphagetti from China to Italy. Who would have thought? From Belem in Lisbon, where Christopher Columbus set off to “discover” the new world to some of the great castles in Portugal, including one of my favourites the Pena National Palace, the link between travel and development cannot be denied.
This is where I believe African travel writers become essential to the course. The course to chart a way to meaningful economic, social and cultural development. Today no one remembers that sphagetti was first Chinese before it became quintessentially Italian. What lurks outside our continent whose transfer to our content could have such an impact as the sphagetti has on Italian culture. As I documented the 13 must try Istanbul street eats, on a trip to Turkey, I was dumbfounded by the attention punters were giving to the common corn on the cob or Misir as the Turks call it. I never imagined corn on the cob could be so nicely packaged and swooned over. Sadly, my thoughts turned to why my country and continent allow such easy ideas and opportunities to slip through our fingers.
My worth as a travel blogger will forever remain diminished and rightly so, until the day I receive a message from a kid somewhere on my continent to say thank you for highlighting what we could do with our common corn on the cob.
A few years ago, I interviewed a designer coffin maker, Eric Adjetey Annang, in the Teshie area of Accra taking along my Greek friend who had come to visit me in Accra. I though nothing of the interview until I started getting messages asking me if the coffin maker, would be interested in exhibitions in Europe. I of course passed on their contact details to him. He grabbed that opportunity and showcased those coffins in a few countries in Europe. Today i’m filled with joy as the tally of exhibitions mount up on his Wikipedia page. That is how we ought to, as African travel bloggers and writers prove our worth. The internet has transformed travelogues just as the printing press transformed travelling all those centuries ago. Just as books became available to pique the curiosity of those who read them about foreign lands, the internet through travel writing and blogging is transforming travel and development today. This is our time and we can be the Marco Polos and Ibn Battutas of our time. Why not?
Cover image source: Southern Cross