So, apparently, I like to hang out with white people.. While travelling Africa...
02.02.2017 - 12.02.2017 35 °C
I’ve made an observation. And I’ve thought pretty hard and long about that observation. But let's start with that actual observation and get to the thinking later. White people in Africa greet each other on the street. Everybody, from the traveller over the expat to the sex tourist and everybody in between. Even if there’s no chance that we’re going to start a conversation together – say, when I’m walking down the street, and an expat in an NGO jeep drives past me in the opposite direction – we’ll give each other a small wave or a polite nod of the head. Let me repeat that: white people, who are complete strangers to one another, greet each other on the streets in Africa simply because they’re both white!
Why is that? Is it racist? Does black people in Europe or Asians in Australia do the same thing? If someone could get back to me with that, that’ll be great.
I’ve even done worse. I’ve been pretty privileged with a number of visits I’ve received while travelling around here in West Africa. It’s been helping to keep me sane in a region were hostels, social guesthouses and other travellers are hard to come by. I haven’t kept score, but regarding fellow traveller’s I might have met someone about every two weeks. I’ve simply lacked other white people. I’m travelling in a region full of perfectly reasonable and friendly locals. It seems fairly unsympathetic, I not downright racist, to need people of my of my skin colour so badly.
Then again, travellers, no matter where in the world, also stick together. Expat creates what is famously know as the ‘expat bubble’ where they hang out with other expats.
The easy answer is probably that it’s all a matter of reference points. Travelling for the sake of travelling is a foreign notion for most people here in Africa, while for us in the West most people know it as a vacation. Being a university educated Dane with a global outlook, while most local are simply trying to get by, doing hard manual labour, doesn’t make it easier to have meaningful conversations much past the usual phrases of introduction. Not that I haven’t made permanent friends down here, though they too tend to be university educated people from the upper middle class – just like me.
Thus I have cherished the visits I have received. Where it’s possible to talk about things happening at home, things going on in the world (read Trump), travellers’ problems or simply speak in my native languish and make jokes based on a common frame of reference of cultural classics and internet memes… And on that note, I’ll change the topic for a brief moment.
My latest visitor, Bo, has headed home and I’ll be travelling on my own the last month my trip. But before I continue my trip alone, I have a visit to make my of own. Not only have I been privileged with visits by friends and family. I’m lucky enough to know friends who live here in West Africa. I know, what are the odds, right. It might be a 700 km detour, but as I hinted at, we travellers are willing to do a lot for the right company.
Pernille is a friend from university who works in a development project in northern Togo. With me travelling through Togo it’s an obvious visit to make. Living in Togo’s second city, Kara, in a compound with a handful Americans and two local families, Pernille isn’t totally isolated from the outside world. But it wasn’t difficult to see that the mere fact that my presence doubled the number of Danes in Kara excited her. Again, that common languish, and those common points of references do a lot.
What is interesting is that it’s not something that’s obvious when travelling around. Sure, travellers stick together in hostels or guesthouses to an almost sickening degree (including myself), but I’ve not necessarily been able to explain why that’s the case. Usually, I just attributed it to travellers being selfish douche bags (myself included). But having first my family and then Bo visiting, before talking with Pernille – who, after all, live with a bunch of Americans – helped this realisation along nicely.
While there are probably many reasons why white people greet each other on Africa's streets, it probably isn’t racists, though it can look like that. It’s a matter of recognition. Of finding some common references, some familiarity on this vast foreign continent where we – if we are honest – doesn’t belong. At least not in the sense that we understand or appreciate everything that is going on. Some of the same familiarity even extended to my visit with Pernille. And she lives with a bunch of other white people.
Thinking a bit about it, it does seem rather natural and human. Even though it sometimes make for rather odd situations of me waving fanatically at random white people driving past me.
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