My life here really is SO strange. I have just finished lunch (guinea fowl with a bottle of Bergerac) with a government minister from a southern African country, and this evening I will be dining with him, another minister and an ambassador from another African country.
How did that come about? Well, really, from the fact that I am a white female. The female part of that answer I think is universal, but the other part perhaps requires elaboration. In their way, Africans are actually far more conscious of skin colour than most white people are. They are also far more concerned by one’s status in society – and the general assumption that white people are educated and wealthy means we automatically slot into the upper echelons of society.
Hence at breakfast this morning I was not that surprised when the man who spoke to me from a nearby table (“excusez-moi madame, vous êtes allemande?”) turned out to be a government minister. But he was charming and interesting, so I agreed to meet him for lunch. He tried to persuade me to visit his country and promised me that if I did he would introduce me to all sorts of appropriate people who could show me around (and when I cheekily asked if it would be possible to visit a diamond mine I was assured that it would be arranged…). Maybe next summer?
The Africa I am most interested in is the Africa that exists for the vast majority of its population – poor, rural Africa, with its traditional animist beliefs, masked dances, music, etc. But in Africa one cannot really choose which section of society to associate with. That comes automatically with one’s perceived status, which these days derives from one’s apparent wealth. Success (and therefore happiness) is measured in terms of material wealth; everyone strives to make more money and to spend that money conspicuously so as to demonstrate their success to everyone around.
There seems to be no resentment of wealth in others, merely a determination to get there oneself. Earlier this week I sat in on a TV recording of a music show, with griots (praise-singers) from around West Africa and an audience of women in the most amazing shiny, glittery boubous, high heels and over-the-top gold jewellery. The type of outfit that to me seems quite obscene in a poor West African country (some of those jewels could feed an entire village for a year). & as is the done thing at such events, several members of the audience went on stage and showered money at the singers. Sometimes a single large denomination note placed into the hand, sometimes a whole wad of smaller denomination notes thrown one-by-one into the air in time with the music. There is even a verb to describe the ostentatious giving-away of money in this way – “faroter” – which I think originates from the Ivory Coast where it is applied more often to the nouveau riche like footballers and pop-stars who apparently sometimes throw money into the air around them whilst dancing at night-clubs.
& the poor here don’t resent such behaviour. They just want to be in the position to behave like that themselves. They cannot begin to understand why anyone who could afford to take a taxi, for example, would choose to use public transport. Or why someone who could afford an embroidered shirt might feel more comfortable in an old T-shirt. Hence they struggle somewhat to deal with foreigners like me. Last week, for example, I spent a day visiting several of our development projects in small Malian villages. I was hoping that lunch might be a freshly-cooked lump of goat at a roadside stall, but of course that was not considered suitable for someone of my status so I was driven instead for nearly an hour to the nearest town so that I could eat chicken and chips in a proper restaurant.
It affects everything you do. Try to sit down with everyone else on an old bench in a village (or with my friends in the Medina in Dakar) and immediately someone will rush forward with a chair. Try to join in the attempt to move something dusty and someone will run to get you a cloth. I remember a holiday in Ethiopia several years back, when every time I got on a bus I was moved to the window seat at the front. I’ve previously put such things down purely to hospitality but now I realise that it is far more complex than that; the same level of hospitality is not given to everyone. It is nice but at the same time it can frustrate any attempts to join in with the local people – and for someone not used to it it can be rather embarrassing.
But I can’t deny that it does present opportunities that one would not get in the West, such as today’s lunch.