Through the magic of air miles, I was able to swing a ten-day layover in Southern Africa, on the way back to Ghana, in early February. Ostensibly, this was to get reconnected with the other half of our BDSA team located in Zambia, but it was also an opportunity for a bit of anthropological comparative analysis between African countries. As luck would have it, my good friend, Jude, also happened to be in the area wrapping up a mission with MSF in Swaziland. So, we met up in Jo-burg and set out for a bromantic road trip up through Botswana, Victoria Falls, and Zambia.
This was the first time I’ve been a legitimate tourist in a while: camping at hostels, hassling the local wildlife, taking blurry photos of things, constantly asking people for “direction”, silently judging the other tourists and vigorously mispronouncing local place names. It was all-in-all a mind-blowing experience, but it was also very eye-opening in terms of how tourism works in this part of Africa.
Here are some observations:
This is what Africa is all about, at least in the essentialized, quick and easy reference we have of it in popular culture. You see amazing mega-fauna in their natural habitats and get all worked up about sunsets and “the circle of life”, Elton John starts singing, end of story. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t amazing and totally worth the experience, and I would definitely recommend doing it if you have a chance, but there are some issues to consider.
First, humans are not evolutionarily inclined to seek out and follow around animals that might want to kill us, so this whole wildlife viewing idea is something of a super normal stimulus. And, like other super normal stimuli–action movies, high fructose corn syrup, pornography–we tend to need more and more of it to get the same rush. After seeing several dozen elephants every day, the novelty does start to take a hit, and you begin wondering what the next exciting thing will be (“Can I get a damn rhino out here, or what!”).
Second, there’s definitely a gradient in terms of “wildness” of animals. At some of the game parks you can go right up and pet the cheetahs or poke the hippos or whatever you want to do. But, these are no longer really wild animals, and you could have saved yourself thousands of dollars and just gone to the zoo. Even in the Moremi Game Reserve near Maun where I went, there are so many safaris land cruisers paparazzing their every waking moment, I’m surprised the animals haven’t taken to wearing hats and dark sunglasses.
Conspicuous Experiential Consumption
Something I’ve always been a fan of is the value of experiences over material goods. I would even go as far as to say if a lot more people adopted a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle, the net environmental and social impact would be far more positive than a comparable sedentary life. Unfortunately, we also have a system that loves to put a price tag on everything, even experiences. This gives rise to the same sort of one-upmanship and conspicuous consumption as is the case with material consumption. We need to go further, spend more, get more exclusive, and be more unique in order to differentiate ourselves from all the other hapless tourists. This may be a bit cynical, but I’m not sure how else to explain the prevalence of US$3,000/night safari lodges buried deep in the Okavango Delta, accessible only by helicopter. Short of sacrificing a lion every evening in your honor, I’m not sure what they do to justify the price they charge. I paid about $150 to go out into the Moremi Game Reserve with a guide for a night and two days, slept in a tent and still saw pretty much the same animals and took the same blurry photos as everyone else.
Unequal Distribution of Benefits
As far as tertiary, service-sector economic development, tourism is pretty hard to beat. Basically people come to your country to look at stuff and have a good time. All you have to do is make sure they are relatively safe, well fed, and not wandering around getting lost and you can go-to-town disuniting them from their money. Unfortunately, from my experience, this does not appear to be an equal opportunity enterprise. The vast majority of the money derived from these scenic public goods is being fed into private hotels, safari lodges and tourism companies. Relatively little finds its way back to the public in the form of park entrance fees and taxes. For the people who just happen to live nearby these amazing, highly valued public goods, tourism would seem to be a mixed blessing. The dozens of “curios” shops selling the same generic African carvings and knick-knacks, have to resort to ever-more elaborate Jedi-mind-tricks to get you to come into their stores, “I just want to ask you something..”, “I only want to talk..”, and the dudes standing around the entrance gate at Victoria Falls keep trying to pawn off their 100billion Zimbabwean bank notes as souvenirs, unaware of the tragic economic irony.
My God, are there a lot of Australians out there in the world traveling around! I have no idea how the country functions with half of their population between 18-24 diasporically self-actualizing all over the place. This is not a slight against Aussies, they are just the most noticeable; other privileged classes of North American, European and even Asian youth are doing the same thing. Overall, I think it is great for young people (who are lucky enough to have the opportunity, financing, and high-power passports) to travel and hopefully gain some humility and perspective on the world. It’s a bit disheartening to see, however, the tendency to cocoon in one’s own cultural context even when far from home. Every hostel I’ve ever stayed at seems to default to the same lowest common cultural denominators: Bob Marley for music, hamburgers and fries for food, English language for media, and some kind of weak-ass lager for beer.
Indicators of Progress
A big motivator for coming out this way was to gain some perspective on how Ghana fits into the overall picture of Africa. As a lower-middle-income country, it is supposed to be in the middle of the pack in terms of development, but it was fascinating to see how these macro level categorizations manifest in everyday life. What stood out for me were things like malls per capita in Lusaka, the cleanliness and existence of sidewalks in Botswana, and the number of kids with braces in Jo-burg. Other details like the prevalence of American fast-food chains, helicopters, Nigerian culture, and ethnic diversity were also the most notable differences to Ghana. In general, from my short stay, it seems like the Southern African countries are quite a ways further along in terms of being “nice places to live”. Botswana in particular is remarkably well-to-do as the Norway of Africa with its diamond cache. Still, I have to say, Ghana takes the cake in terms of cultural panache, friendliness and general joie de vivre.
I’ve managed to say almost nothing about where I went or what I did, but hopefully you’ve gained something from reading. Despite the crass commercialization and packaged, checklist tourism, this part of the world is truly primal, humbling, and definitely worth visiting. Please, don’t take anything I’ve said too seriously, I am only one highly-unique perspective. Not to get preachy, but being a tourist, I have (re)learned is rarely straightforward or easy. If you decide to visit, I would encourage a lot of reflection and research before, during, and after to get the most out of the experience and to contribute the most back.