When I was in Egypt, we often joked that we were in Fake Africa. When asked if I had ever been to Africa before Benin, I would say yes and explain Egypt, which elicited much doubt. I was told, in one way or another, that Egypt didn’t count, or wasn’t really Africa because it was:
not black enough
filled with too many people who were fully clothed
not hungry enough
not in civil strife
not “native” enough
If that’s not offensive to all parties, I’m not sure what would be. Often our stereotypes, both positive and negative, get in the way of our ability to just appreciate a place for what it is. When in the markets of Benin, many of the girls looked for “something really African,” such as wooden, hand-carved jewelry. Wooden, hand-carved statues. Or wooden, hand-carved anything. Many were frustrated that we only saw cheap plastic and metal jewelry from China in plastic wrap. But that’s what the women around us wore. Not hand-carved elephants or oblong faces on a string of wooden beads.
Instead of trapping Africa in the CNN version of it (hungry, desolate, war-torn and filled with safari animals and naked people) why don’t we just let Africa reveal itself to us? Sometimes Africa is t-shirts, while other times it’s vivid-patterned cloth from China, and still others it’s an abaya. We are the observers–not the creators–of Africa, and like any destination, we should try not to let our own imagination hold us back from the amazing world unfolding right in front of us.