Nuanced views in Africa

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An artist friend of mine has created remarkable pieces of work, using the title “Africa is not a country”. This might seem to be a banal or obvious statement to make, but there are many of us who need to be constantly reminded of this truism. Every time I visit a part of the continent that I haven’t seen before, I discover energies that are unique to that place. Events that happened long before our time have made their marks on the culture of each region and it helps to be open minded in perceiving the dynamics at play when one experiences unfamiliar ways of doing or seeing things.

In Zanzibar, I was immediately impressed by the dressing of the men of Masai heritage. I always associated Masai culture with Kenya and it is likely that most of the fellows I saw were immigrants from what is described on the island as “the mainland”. These fellows reminded me of gladiators and I could imagine them as warriors in an epic movie or re-enactment piece. There was also something that felt uncompromising and “from the source” about their bearing. I was told by my chaperone that they worked as security operatives in many hotels on the island.

Another striking feature of the island is the large number of hotels. Zanzibar obviously has a history of people passing through, from different parts of the world. Many of the workers in these establishments also hail from mainland Tanzania. The local people don’t seem to be as interested in the hospitality business, perhaps because they associate it with slave labour, based on the way things used to be in times gone by. Is it possible that they might have missed a trick? The hotel workers might be paid low wages, but they do earn a living from what they do, which is not my understanding of the deal that slaves had to contend with.

There is an interestingly tiered approach to buying and selling, with different rates attached to the price of goods, depending on whether one is seen to be a local person or an outsider. On the surface, this might seem to be fair enough, but in practice it could sometimes reveal complicated undercurrents regarding perception. I could go to the market with my chaperone and initially be treated as a local, but if I opened my mouth to speak, or brought out my wallet, a trader would want to change the initially agreed price of the product I wanted to buy.

Did this give me the idea that I needed to conceal aspects of my personality to function effectively on a day to day basis? In some cases, I would have to say “yes” in response to that question.