Friday, August 29, 2014

A Different Take on Race

Late Monday I sent a book chapter to my editor.  I awoke Tuesday morning to an email stating, “This is great!  We should talk ASAP. When can we chat?”  We agreed to Skype that night.  As the day progressed I became more excited about the positive tone of the email.  By the time our Skype appointment rolled around I had convinced myself I had A Sorcerer’s Apprentice situation on my hands.  You know how Mickey started off with that one broomstick?  And then it multiplied until he was surrounded by thousands?  I was convinced my 18 pages had grown into a full length book.  No such luck.

This Skype meeting was the first time my editor and I had actually seen each other.  Until that point in time I had no idea he was… black.  And the reason he wanted to talk to me was because I had several statements in my chapter about black Americans and how they are viewed by the locals when they go to Africa.  Since he found this so interesting, and surprising, I figured I would share some of the highlights of our conversation.

Before my trip to Congo I was visiting with some friends in Botswana.  As I told them about the plans for my trip, one of them, a Motswana, said to me, “You can’t go there! There are BLACK people there!”  I was shocked.  She was black.  The other four friends at that get-together were black.  I was the only white person I had seen in weeks.  I was ALWAYS surrounded by black people.  How was going to Congo different?  I couldn’t help but say quizzically, “Huh? I don’t understand.”  She went on to explain that she, and other Batswana, were not black.  They were brown-black.   And as you go further north people become “more black.”  “Ugandans and Kenyans, they are blue-black.  But the Congolese?  (She shakes her head.) They are black-black.”  It had never occurred to me that Africans had their own racial distinctions among themselves until that moment.  But this prompted me to start paying attention to this, and from that point forward I realized that they do differentiate.

When I visited Kenya everyone would immediately want to talk to me about Obama, of course.  “We are very proud to have a Kenyan as President of the United States.  He is a very good muzungu.”  I was surprised to hear Obama referred to as a muzungu, but figured it was because he was light skinned due to having a white mother.  I later came to learn that all African-Americans are muzungu (in East Africa).  Or lekogwa (in Southern Africa). Or obruni (in West Africa.)

Many African-Americans visit West Africa because of its slave history.  Ghana and Senegal in particular have become huge slave tourism attractions.  However, many black Americans who make the trip to these destinations leave less than satisfied.  I have been to some of these former slave prisons, dungeons and trading posts, and they are by nature, sad.  It’s understandable that people aren’t laughing and happy when they depart from these locations.  But African-Americans tend to struggle not just with the historical aspect, but also their interactions with locals while they are there.

When African-Americans travel to Africa they typically have the ideal that they are going “home” to visit “relatives.”  But when they arrive they are called “obruni.”  “Obruni” means “whiteman” but it refers to any non-African.  In other words, Europeans, Asians, people from the Americas are all called “obruni,” so it actually has a second meaning of “foreigner.”  This terminology projects the opinion that Africans do not see black Americans as “black Africans coming home.”

Some tourist destinations have realized this attitude is detrimental.  Ghana launched a PR campaign not too long ago designed to change the behavior of residents toward African-American visitors.  Ghanians were discouraged from referring to them as “obruni” and were instead told to say “akwaaba anyemi” which means “welcome brother (or sister).”

Our conversation lasted for the better part of an hour.  We bonded over our shared muzungu heritage, began planning my editor’s dream itinerary to visit Africa (he’s never been) and discussed my book.  Though I haven’t perfected my spell casting skills yet, at least it appears my new project is off to a good start.

Here are some photos from Bunce Island, a former slave fort in Sierra Leone:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Reentering the First World, Part Two

First of all, please let me apologize to my loyal blog readers for being absent for the past week.  I was driving from Maryland back to Texas and stopping to visit friends along the way.  I thought I would keep up with my blog while on the road, but in the end nine hours of driving a day plus mandatory (and necessary) social time with friends I haven’t seen in years equaled an exhausted Kelly unable to open her laptop.  But, rest assured, I am back!

Yesterday I arrived in Lubbock, Texas and was greeted by my posse of graduate students- current and former.  Thank goodness they were here to help me unpack my car, move my things from storage to my new house, rearrange furniture, etc.  They are currently scrubbing the toilets and cutting my lawn as I write this.  Totally kidding!  But they did help me with the move-in process which was a huge relief.  And it was a lot of fun because it was a mini-reunion (mini because we were missing a few Phelantologists who have graduated and moved on to bigger and better things).

I spent the better part of last night and this morning unpacking and cleaning, but you know how moves are.  You unpack 20 boxes only to realize you apparently packed all the plates and utensils, but somehow the glasses and bowls missed the boat.  This is made all the more shocking because somehow there are three used toothbrushes and a half empty roll of toothpaste in a box.  I know, I thought the same thing, Why in the world would I keep those for almost 15 months? Ewwwww….

Around 10 this morning I had a pretty comprehensive list of items I needed to purchase to make my new digs more habitable and so I ventured out to the store.  I know I arrived back in the U.S. about a month ago, but I’ve been so busy with conferences, social visits and family vacations that I haven’t spent any time doing normal day-to-day stuff- like going to the store.  This morning’s visit to Market Street (a grocery store) was a bit overwhelming.  I went in with a list of about a dozen things to buy.  But as I perused the aisles I kept thinking, Oh wow! They have XYZ product?  I should totally get one of those!......  They have ABC!  That’s amazing!  I haven’t seen one of those in…. hmmm…. a year, if not longer.  I definitely need that too…...  I don’t even know what this thing is!  But it looks AWESOME!  I’m totally getting this.  I don’t know what I’m gonna use it for, but I’m pretty sure I will LOVE IT! 

In aisle 8B I realized I had a problem.  Actually it was pointed out to me by Tim, a friendly shelf stocker.  I saw canned artichoke hearts and took EVERY SINGLE can off the shelf.  He stood there and watched me do this and said, “Are you sure you need ALL of those?”  I didn’t count them, but I would guess I had at least 100 cans of artichokes in my cart.  In the end I didn’t buy any of them because I realized I probably wouldn’t eat them this week anyway and I could just wait for them to go on sale.  And when they DO go on sale, they will actually be there.

Last night I was visiting with one of my former grad students and her husband.  Joe asked me, “What was the hardest thing about living in Africa?  What is the biggest adjustment coming home?”  I told him that it’s not the big things that make living abroad hard.  I knew before I went to Africa that there would be lots of power outages, that water rationing might mean you couldn’t take showers for days, that there were food shortages, so there were times you would go to the grocery store and there would be no fresh food on the shelf.  But you expect those things.  The things that drive you nuts are the little things.  Here in the U.S. if you need a battery you go to CVS a block away, run in, pick out the battery you need, pay for it and get out of there.  It should take 5 minutes or less to run that errand.  But that’s not how it works in Africa.  That task could take you all day, or several days.  (Remember when I tried to get my university ID?)

The best example of the little things driving you nuts involved two monkeys, a toothbrush, and what else? A condom.  Because in the end everything (in Africa) involves a condom, right?

One day I was in my house in Botswana, working at my desk on the first floor.  I heard a lot of commotion upstairs and went up to investigate.  Two monkeys had gotten into the house through my open bedroom window and were tearing my bathroom apart.  In the scuffle to get them out of there they knocked my face cream and toothbrush into the toilet.  Now, I wasn’t happy about the face cream because do you have any clue how difficult it is to find face cream for a white person in Africa?  Answer: Very hard.  But I could live without face cream.  I could NOT live without a toothbrush.  I finally got the monkeys out of the house and set out for the store to buy a new toothbrush.  It took me seven hours to (I think) nine or ten different stores in search of a toothbrush.  In the second to the last store I looked around, was unable to find a toothbrush and so I asked for assistance.  The store clerk said they did not have any toothbrushes, but instead offered me a box of condoms.  Though I desperately attempted to keep my cool I failed.  I started flailing my arms and told him, “I CANNOT CLEAN MY TEETH WITH THAT!!!!”  Thinking back on that now I remember the clerk nonchalantly shrugging as if to say, “Hey lady, here’s your option.  If you don’t like it, oh well.”

They say a lot of people who move overseas experience culture shock.  Many individuals also have similar challenges adjusting when they come home.  I suppose the artichokes are my reverse culture shock.  When I was at Market Street today I also stopped to stare at the wall of a thousand toothbrushes.  Sadly, Tim was there for that too.  I thought I was using my inner monologue when I said, “Wow, so many toothbrushes.  They are beautiful.”  But when Tim responded and said, “Yes, we have lots of toothbrushes.  But remember, you can only use one at a time” I thought it best to tell him, “I’m not strange.  I’ve been living in Africa.  I haven’t seen most of this stuff in forever.”  He nodded his head as if he truly understood me and said, “Well, in that case, we are open 24 hours, take your time looking around.” 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Zonkies: The Cool Kids of the Animal Kingdom

When I went to college I was in one of the first classes to have a significant number of multiracial students.  In an effort to be as transparent as possible I will take this opportunity to admit I actually had to look up the proper term.  A multiracial American is someone who belongs to two or more races.  This is different from being multiethnic.  Most Americans are multiethnic by default.  If you say you are an American whose ancestors are from Ireland and Germany you are multiethnic.  But someone who is multiracial is from two (or more) different races: black and white, or Asian and white, or Native American and Asian, etc.  Again, please keep in mind, I am a professor of tourism, not a race or ethnicity specialist.

But as I was saying, when I went to college I had a lot of classmates who were multiracial.  This made a lot of sense because kids born in the late 70s/early 80s had parents who were the first to consider and accept interracial marriages in the U.S. And all these kids were very open about this; they really embraced and were proud of the fact that they were a little bit different.  A lot of my friends had dads who were former U.S. military and met their wives overseas during either the Korean or Vietnam wars.  And then I had a lot of other friends who had one black and one white parent.  There were so many of these interracial kids at Hopkins they actually formed a club: the Happy Halfies.  They would introduce one another as, “This is my friend Chris.  He’s a Happy Halfy, just like me!”   To be completely honest, those of us who weren’t halfies were almost a little jealous because they were definitely the epitome of cool kids.  And they were all good looking.  I’m not sure if there is a biological explanation, but there wasn’t a single bad looking guy or girl in the group.

A few years after I graduated I moved to Galena, Alaska to work in a boarding high school.  All of my students were native Alaskans.  Some were Inuit, others Yupik Eskimos, Athabaskans, Aleuts and a few Inupiaqs.  Each year Galena would host a huge basketball tournament in which teams from around the state would fly in and compete.  I always looked forward to this event because there was a huge cultural component, and it gave me a real opportunity to learn more about the differences between the various native groups.  The team from Aniak always amazed me.  Their mascot was the halfbreed.  In the 1970s the Aniak high school students selected the mascot because “it made sense.”  There was a large population of white settlers who intermarried with Yupik Eskimos, resulting in mixed-race kids.  When I was in Galena almost 15 years ago, the mascot was shown as a face cut in half: one side of the face looked like a white settler, the other half of the face had native features and a long braid.  The portrayal has since been changed:
The reason I am writing about my friends the Happy Halfies and the Aniak Halfbreeds is because a story about a zonkey in Crimea recently went viral.  (At least something positive is coming out of poor Ukraine.)  I was looking at CNN this morning and there was a zonkey born in a Crimean zoo recently.  When I was in Botswana I used to see zonkeys from time to time.  They aren’t terribly common, but when a zebra and a donkey fall in love, or have the opportunity, a zonkey is what results.  I am certainly not equating my friends to animals, but anytime I see a zonkey I was always reminded of the Happy Halfies and the Halfbreeds.  In case you are unfamiliar with a zonkey here is a picture from Botswana.  We used to have donkeys wander around town all the time, but here is one of the zonkeys not far from UB:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Little America

Last week I was in San Diego for a conference.  When the conference ended I went to San Francisco for a few days to visit my friend Brian.  I had never been to San Fran before, so while my first priority was visiting Brian and his family whom I hadn’t seen in over a year, a close second was checking out the city.  One of our excursions took us to Chinatown, which is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and the oldest in North America.  The funny thing about all that stuff being sold in Chinatown… is that it is all made in India!  I took great pleasure in picking up all the little trinkets, turning them over, anticipating a “Made in China” tag, only to be shocked upon reading, “Made in India” instead.  What IS the world coming to?

Somewhere between the fortune cookie factories, the foot reflexology massage advertisements and the Indian made chopsticks, I was reminded of a conversation I had with some friends about a similar phenomenon... Little America.

Believe it or not, Africa is not typically known for being culinarily sophisticated or diverse, but there is evidence to the contrary.  There are at least three established Chinatowns on the continent, in Madagascar, Mauritius and South Africa; Mombasa, Kenya hosts a huge annual Oktoberfest; and Johannesburg has a Little Italy.   One afternoon I was sitting in the lounge at Joburg Airport with some recently acquired single serving friends discussing these types of ethnically-centered communities.  A Brit made the comment (in the way only a Brit could say it), “I don’t understand, why aren’t there any Little Americas?”  To which I responded (as only an American could), “Of course there are!  In fact there are several thousand of them.”  After a belated pause for effect and the expected exchange of confused glances I continued, “And you have all been there, likely many times.  It is called McDonald’s!”

The mention of McDonald’s sent the conversation off on a completely different tangent, one in which only a tourism professor could dominate, and so I did.  My companions began debating the merits of McDonald’s, the menus selected according to geographical region and questioned why some countries have a never-ending supply of McDonald’s, while other areas, particularly the large majority of Africa were McDonald’s-free zones.  Even the Brit admitted, “The last four months in Zimbabwe have been the longest of my life.  I would have killed for a Big Mac.”  There are only five African countries with McDonald’s restaurants: Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Mauritius and Reunion Island.  The other 49 countries are sans-Mickey-D’s.  In case you are curious as to why McDonald’s has not infiltrated the continent there is a simple answer: The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention.

In 1999 Thomas Friedman wrote the book The Lexus and the Olive Tree in which he stated, “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s.”  In the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention chapter, Friedman goes on to explain that McDonald’s will only enter a country that has reached a certain level of economic development, one which supports a middle class that can patronize a McDonald’s establishment.  Once a country has that kind of financial security it becomes a “McDonald’s country,” one which is stable enough not to want to pursue potentially destructive actions, such as wars.

In all fairness, The Golden Arches Theory is not absolute.  In fact, shortly after the book was published NATO bombed Yugoslavia.  The 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon and the current crisis with Russia and Ukraine are other examples which make the theory flawed.  But at the same time, there are countries which could be categorized as possible “McDonald’s countries” which haven’t made the cut.  Namibia and Botswana haven’t been in wars with anyone since independence, 24 years and 48 years, respectively.

Trust me, I am NOT advocating the spread of McDonald’s, particularly into Africa.  I would much rather see these countries develop their own businesses outside of the big brand giants.  But I have to admit, there is nothing more challenging than teaching in Botswana and saying to your class of 100+ students, “Ok, you know how McDonald’s does XYZ?”  You look into the crowd of faces and realize everyone is staring back at you completely clueless as to what you are talking about.  “No, no most definitely do not know how McDonald’s does XYZ, or anything for that matter.  Never mind, give me a second, I can find another example for you.”  At some point in your academic career you think you are pretty well versed in your field.  And then you get a little reality check like this one and remember that learning should never stop.

Here is a map of countries with and without McDonald’s, along with some other interesting facts.  It should be noted there is a mistake on this map: the large red spot in northwest (top left side) Africa is Algeria which does NOT have a McDonald’s.  Instead that should be blue and there should be a red area NEXT to it (on the left) where Morocco lies.  Minor detail, unless of course you are Moroccan or Algerian:

Sunday, August 3, 2014

An Albino Pinkie and a Pint of Goat’s Blood

I don’t really know why, but today I had a strange thought, Huh… Haven’t seen any albinos in a while.  How odd.  I’m sure most of you reading this are thinking to yourselves, Wow.  That’s one ODD thought.  Agreed.  Albinos were part of my normal daily life in Africa.  And of all the observations from my African travels, this was not one which I thought would resonate and stay with me when I returned.

I’m not sure I ever saw an albino in real life before I moved to Africa.  But in Africa, since most countries have a population which is over 90% black, albinism is quite common.  There are several reasons for this but inbreeding is considered one of the primary causes.  Aside from the cities, most people in Africa live in villages.  The large majority of people will live in those villages their entire lives- unless of course they attempt to migrate to the cities for work, which is happening more frequently.  However, those that do remain in the villages will likely marry someone from their own village, or a neighboring village.  When you only have 200 people in a village, your options are limited, meaning there is a high likelihood you will marry a cousin.  By the way, this also tends to happen in bush Alaska.  This is why many states require you to get a blood test before you get married because if you procreate with a relative there are likely to be health problems for the resulting offspring.  In Africa, the most common health issue associated with marrying your relative and producing children is albinism.

Tanzania has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world, with one in every 1,300 people having the condition.  This may not sound like a lot, but I will say from experience I saw at least one, sometimes many, albinos every single day that I was in Africa.  Some areas are more sensitive to albinism than others and some places are incredibly adverse to it, often hunting albinos down and killing them as you would game animals.  Many albinos are referred to as ghosts due to their light features and are often believed to have magical powers. This is especially important when it comes to witchcraft which is prevalent throughout the continent.  People go to witch doctors for all kinds of things: infertility, help in finding a mate, premature baldness, and one of my personal favorites, wanting to put a curse on an enemy.  No, I didn’t put a curse on anyone… or did I? (insert evil laugh here)

When you go to a witch doctor- I was a witness, NOT a participant- you are given a prescription for how to solve your problem.  It’s kind of like a Catholic going to confession: 5 Hail Marys, 5 Our Fathers, etc. etc. But our visit to the witch doctor resulted in, “Bring me the pinkie finger of an albino and a pint of goat’s blood.”  WHAT?!?!?!  No joke! And for the record, I did not return for the follow-up visit, I didn’t want to be an accessory to the albino pinkie crime.

The ghost association makes many people afraid of albinos because no one wants to interact with the dead.  At the same time, some cultures think albinos have special powers; hence the reason for incorporating body parts from, or in some instances, a human sacrifice of an albino.  But regardless of these two beliefs there is the theory that albinos never die.  And very often that is true.  You never find a dead albino; instead they simply “disappear” because they have been hunted down and their body discarded.  There is also a black market for albino body parts.  Basically if you “need” an albino pinkie you can go to a dealer and pay him, sometimes thousands of dollars to “harvest” the necessary part.  More than once I’ve overheard comments made about albinos to the effect of, “There’s my next fortune walking down the side of the road.”

The average life expectancy of an albino living in Africa is 30 years, due in part to what I described above, but also because they are so susceptible to skin cancer, even more so than a white person.  In Tanzania fewer than 2% of albinos make it to 40.

So as I was telling you, I haven’t seen an albino in quite a while.  But I think that has more to do with the fact there just aren’t that many of them here in the U.S., not that we are hunting these mysterious ghosts for medicinal purposes.  Someone asked me today what the biggest shock was about my time in Africa.  After reflecting upon it I would have to say my visit to the witch doctor would rank among the top five.