Misconceptions

For a few days, expect a lot of pondering to happen in this space. If that’s not your cup of tea, well, see my Instagram instead. It’s pretty.

When I told my parents I wanted to go see Africa, they were in doubt. And I get it, why wouldn’t they be? After all, most of us have been exposed to a very crude picture of Africa. The picture of malnourishment and malaria, the picture of blood diamonds and civil wars. And while this is true, it’s not what defines the entire continent. To put it in context, what if I used the images of police brutality, obesity and Donald Trump to define the United States of America? Exactly.

Confession time. I didn’t know what exactly I was getting into either. I mean, I knew better than to expect war and poverty everywhere I went, but I didn’t know what exactly I would see there. I knew it was safe enough for me to travel alone, but with precautions. I knew they had decent infrastructure and the Southern Province in Zambia was rather peaceful. I knew they were friendly and a tourist hub, and were accepting of different cultures. But did I have inhibitions? Certainly.

Landing at Nairobi and having my bags lost (Yay, Kenya Airlines) and trying to get them back while a 30-something-year-old tried to flirt with me was not the best start. But Martin, my man, I haven’t forgotten about you. He was my first experience of what everyone terms is the “typical African hospitality.” He calmed me down and got my bags with great effort, and I was thankful to him. I was hoping to see him later during departure the next day, but alas I couldn’t.

The trend continued. In Zambia, the security at the airport helped a frazzled me to Rebeccah, and then the house moms helped me settle in. The taxi drivers asked me where I was from and tried very hard to recollect names of Bollywood movies to connect to me. Were some people aggressive? Yes. Did some make me uncomfortable? Most definitely. But for most part, it felt like any other country. Desperately trying to juggle between heritage and globalisation, to not lose their identity as they cater to tourists from all across the world.

There was no war, of course, just some overly excited campaigners for their presidential nominees. There was poverty, and there was a lack of proper health care system. And it wasn’t only the physical lack of infrastructure, but also a lack in awareness. Lack of awareness about healthcare, about hygeine and some basic do’s and don’t’s. It was startling, to see parents tell their kids to rub dirt off the road on their wounds or not have the concept of handwash before consuming food.

Yet, on the other hand, another image. HIV was spoken about more freely than I have seen in India, where it is a huge problem as well. The stigma was so much lower, with HIV positive children very openly playing with HIV negative ones, and their parents being comfortable with it. This acceptance in part of the society, atleast in the community I worked with, was admirable. I can tell you this, it wouldn’t work the same way in India or in most countries around the world.

And so, the stereotype did hold true to an extent. There is a massive rich vs poor gap, and there is need for intervention. There is a lack of proper education, of standard healthcare, of basic human rights awareness. There is need for resources – both financial and human. But that’s only the part we choose to see and obsess over. It is also true that Africa has so much potential, and so much more scope than we could ever imagine. Hard working people, fertile lands, industries booming up.

And why is development looked at only from an economic perspective anyway? Zambians were some of the kindest people I met. Not one of them discriminated against me for my race. They had an acute understanding of their political system (the amount of times taxi drivers and shop assistants have had intellectual conversations with me is beyond imaginable). So many of them are content living in Africa, on their own terms and conditions. They were fine not having sky scrappers blocking the famous African sunsets. They were okay not breathing polluted air. They were okay developing socially before they developed economically, and that is saying something in a neo-liberal era.

It’s high time we begin to understand the complexities involved with Africa instead of stereotyping the entire continent into one sad image in our heads. Yes, they need help in some areas. That does not make us better than them, not in any way. For most, Africa is so much like India – still grappling with the expectations of all sections of the socities, unable to find their way with the superpowers constantly making it difficult to grow sustainably. They neither are a fairytale story, nor are they a horror story. They’re just there, trying to find a way through. Like all of us are.

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