Culture for Profit and its Complications

To Pimp a Culture

A few years ago, in Trinidad, I was sitting with a man named Aldrick watching cars go by as the topic of oil came into conversation. Trinidadian oil must bring in a lot of money, I commented. He agreed the oil, the banks and the tourism, that was where the cash lay. “But the tourism I don’t like so much, you know, you start to feel when your country is spread out a certain way for tourists she becomes like a prostitute”. Between oil, banks and tourism I was surprised that what he had highlighted as most problematic for the country were its visitors, but the more I travel and see cultures being sold over and over again to those unfamiliar with it the more his words resonate with me wherever I go.
My family is native to an island not so far from Trinidad, a smaller perhaps even more paradisiacal place it is easily more touristic than T&T. I have been going back and forth to Barbados since I was a child, travelling with and to my family meant that it always felt warm and welcoming to me, home to my own mother, aunties, uncles, grandparents and so forth. Given my love for the place it never surprised me when friends or colleagues would praise it and tell me about the wonderful times they’d had there.

But it wasn’t until I travelled to Barbados without my family, just a few months before meeting Aldrick, and instead with a group of colleagues; two Americans, two Brits, a Rwandan and a Réunionese, that I discovered the welcoming sensation I felt was different from that described to me by tourists with no familial link to the island. Theirs was a well-trained smile that I recognised from years of working in the service industry, one that usually comes with the exchange of cash; a lasting handshake, heavy with the appreciation of custom and of course an island-wide willingness to go the extra mile.

Globally, one happy tourist means revenue and lots of it whilst one drop of tourist blood is expensive, especially in areas where tourism is the number one source of income. Hence travellers are treated with the utmost care, given everything they need and always reminded to come back.

This service industry smile is expected when you take a holiday, you pay for a service and you expect a smile. Most travellers however are also paying for a cultural experience and in a world where what the tourist says goes, that’s just part of the service. At this point things get awkward for me, when am I simply experiencing something new and when am I on the receiving end of a country pimping out its culture?

The examples of forced or insincere depictions of culture for profit are endless, wandering through Edinburgh I wondered if the men in kilts playing their bagpipes would bother if there was no one to take pictures. I was doubtful. In Salvador do Bahia where adult women dress up as the concept of ‘Mama Bahía’ the afrobrazilian woman who embodies the spirit of the Brazilian northeast. Similarly at Maasai Mara after a day of driving around taking pictures of lions and zebra tourists are offered a cultural experience of a traditional Maasai dance to complete ‘the African adventure’.

Often tourism is about giving people what they expect but unfortunately, so often our ideas about foreign countries are outdated, archaic or incredibly narrow. So as the economic need for tourism persists in order to entice tourists the image that is sold is one created by outsiders, for outsiders. Caribbean paradise means white sand and blue sea. In St. Lucia, a volcanic island where sand ranges from black as night to silvery yellow, white sand is imported from neighbouring islands. Here, this is not a cultural exploitation as much as a futile expenditure, white sand does not feel better under your feet, nor make the sea any more soothing. It just looks more like the postcard you are likely to send home.

The black sand beaches of St Vincent.

The black sand beaches of St Vincent.

As I stepped out of an airplane in Nairobi, Kenya last month the wall that guided me to passport control was decorated with paintings of ‘the big five’ wild animals you can find on safari intertwined with silhouette images of opaque  women with a traditionally ‘African’ shape appearing to be dancing or carrying baskets on their heads. My eyes narrowed. Imagining that this was my first trip to Kenya, or even on the continent where it resides, I wondered what my impressions would be. It almost seemed to affirm the stereotypes and preconceived notions of the country before passengers had even legally made it in. Something about it irked me.
This vague sense of suspicion or discomfort I felt at the airport was set aside for the next few weeks as my mind became distracted by beaches and lakes from Mombasa to Zanzibar. However a trip to the National Museum of Tanzania brought it all flooding back as the disappointment I felt cruising through this representation of a nation was overwhelming. As you walk in the first exhibition has a photo of Nyerere, ‘baba wa taifa,’ the first president of Tanzania elected in 1964 and the ‘father of a nation’. Nyerere’s socialist leanings and “villagisation” policies are thought to have deeply shaped the politics of Tanzania that we know today, a largely peaceful and stable country.

As I walk further around the images cease to surprise me and seem only to teach and show me anything about Tanzania that I would have lazily assumed. Spears, beads, recipes from “witch doctors”, portraits of white men who died hundreds of years ago such as the late great explorer David Livingstone, a man who made Tanzania what it is. Then there was my favourite stand of all, the AIDS stall. Despite our image of AIDS-ridden Africa, in reality most travellers in Tanzania will barely come in contact with people living with AIDS, the popular island of Zanzibar has a prevalence of 0.6 % whilst Arusha the biggest town in the Kilimanjaro area has a prevalence of less than 2%. As I became more and more distressed at why a national museum had decided to erect a stand about a disease wondering if I had missed the cancer or cardiovascular section of Catalonia’s history museum, I wondered how long it would take before an Ebola stand was a permanent fixture?
The AIDS stall made me reconsider how I had seen the whole museum, celebrations of ‘baba wa taifa’ then became a reiteration of the old lie that Africa was born in the 1960s after independence, negating centuries of East African history, which at best are referred to in the context of the European invasion as “pre-colonial” if they are ever mentioned at all. Even the language seemed to be lying to me, words like “tribe” and “hunter-gatherer” which were not in any local language but in the language of the coloniser and seemed to serve only in the exoticising of the land’s own people.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that as a British passport holder I do recognise the hypocrisy of complaining about the national museum of a former British colony when more often than not the stolen artefacts of former colonies reside in the British Museum, rather than the areas from which they were looted. But what exhausted me so much about the Museum was that it reflected this tendency not specifically of Tanzania or Tanzanians but of so many cultures within the African diaspora to present ourselves as the other, as the exotic.

Thinking back to these mysterious, faceless black women on the walls of Jomo Kenyatta Airport, it became clearer what had irked me so much. A woman with a big bum and a basket on her head isn’t exotic in Kenya, she’s just a woman (definition of exotic: “foreign, not native, strikingly unusual, unique). Through depicting just a woman as this image which should strike awe and wonder in the viewer, you are not only exoticising the banal but you are also commodifying the black female form. From the opening of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 which saw black women from the colonies stand for days on display with ‘exotic’ fruits around them, to a Taylor Swift video in 2014, the fascination of the black female form has stood the test of time, and black women’s bodies will likely be a commodity for generations to come.

However, objectification of women is just one consequence of culture for profit and the ‘othering’ of oneself. The recent debate on cultural appropriation debate has tackled some of the difficulties in drawing the line between a simple cultural exchange and exploitation. Maybe the scot in his kilt is adamant that tourists will not leave without knowing of the bagpipes that are an essential element of Scottish culture. Perhaps ‘Mama Bahia’ is so proud of her ancestors she wants every passer-by to know her. A recent article on the gentrification of Harlem which tackled the awkwardness in profiting from culture without falling into stereotypes and crude generalisations, asked the question “how do you monetize the cultural experience in a way that remains genuine and authentic?”

I do not believe this is impossible. Culture for profit often means that despite spending a substantial amount of time in a new place, you end up going home with the same stereotypes you came with. You go to morocco with flashbacks of Aladdin lingering in your mind, pay a snake charmer for a photo and leave with the same image that was buried in your brain somewhere before you arrived. This is both yours and the snake charmer’s fault. We as members of the African diaspora must be adamant in defining ourselves not in the context of the European colonisers or slave masters but as beings unto ourselves, and eventually develop a true independence beyond being nations of servers.

But tourism like any industry works on the basis of supply and demand, tourists demand the culture they saw in a film and local businesses supply it. So if we change the demands that we make as tourists we can become better-informed, more open consumers of culture. Don’t go looking for a dark continent full of magic and mysteries as described by Joseph Conrad. Read Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie and expect to find other human beings who like you have a culture that dictates to a large extent their behaviour on a day to day basis. Stop looking for the other and instead look to see yourself reflected in the people you meet, and once you have established those similarities the differences become evident and from there too you can begin to learn of a culture.

NB The National Museum of Tanzania is not 100% bad, I did enjoy the rock art exhibition and the photography of the old East African coast.

On Gentrification

I won’t lie. The first time I had to queue to get into a bar in Peckham, I was outraged. Despite being from Lewisham and having only discovered the wonders of Peckham in my late teens, as a South London native I felt I deserved an automatic queue jump. When it became evident that I was fuming in vain, I jumped on my high horse (the 436) and rode off to a pub somewhere in Camberwell.

Peckham used to be a typical South London area with a high street that consisted of a Macdonalds, a Primark, a handful of black hair shops and a budget cinema. Over the past five or ten years that very high street has seen huge changes with many locals complaining of influxes of Shoreditch rejects congregating to sample the latest vegan* brunches and vintage fashion. As more and more shops catering to the hipsters and hipsters-in-denial have popped up and rents then have continued to increase Peckham has become the poster child for the gentrification of South London.

While I appreciate the availability of prosecco and proscuitto at a 15 minute walk from my house  my issues with the gentrification of South London run far deeper than frustration at excessive waiting time at a local bar. Growing up in a ‘deprived’ area of the UK, proprietor of the formidable Great British Pound, has always made me hugely sceptical of trickle-down economics. The idea that money that flows into the top will eventually find its way down to those who need it at the bottom is difficult to swallow when your borough has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the capital. Inequality in London is nothing new. Every year millions of tourists descend on the city to wonder at historic architecture, royal palaces and stolen artefacts pouring incomputable amounts into this wonderful city’s economy. Meanwhile, not too far South, overworked GPs and locals must campaign relentlessly to keep our hospitals open, because if not where else will the local stab victims, substance abusers and the mentally unwell be treated?

The deep set resentment that many feel towards the proprietors and customers of these new businesses and inevitably their new neighbours may seem difficult to grasp at first. Some newer residents may feel that if anything they are contributing by paying substantial prices for rent, food and nights out in the area, some who are more in tune may simply feel that they too are humans who need a place to live and have an appreciation of the neighbourhood. Fair enough. But it is worth acknowledging that the failure of trickle-down economics is more difficult to swallow when all you’re asking for is the money to trickle not from the top, but  across from those living on your doorstep. So as money flows into the hands of big landlords and savvy businesspeople who swooped in at just the right time, those outside of this network remain ignored.

Neglected areas are exactly that, they are areas where poorly paid social workers play mother and father to every abandoned or mistreated child (of whom there are plenty) and those with a community spirit spend their lives fighting tooth and nail to keep the community afloat, together. Their lives are made only harder as more money gets thrown forcing them to pay more for everything from rent to coffee.

Of course not every South Londoner is a hero, there are many happy-go-lucky “it’s shit but we love it” types and just as many “we might not have much but we’re a family” locals or even some “it’s not great but it’s all I know” ones. But there’s also an angrier, more bitter kind whose hardships were perhaps not so easy to overcome. Let’s call them the “I hate this place and everything it represents” South Londoner.

Growing up in an area like mine there are a million experiences available to the average teenager that shouldn’t be, from drugs and sex (and hence teen pregnancy) to the emasculating routine of stop and search and equally shameful procedure of getting mugged every other week. Many of those hit the hardest by the real issues of the borough, do not want to be there. Success would be to escape but they are trapped in a cycle of poverty that limits their options and confines them to that oh-so-trendy place. As superficial change  grows exponentially accompanied by that fearless freedom that comes with middle-class options, free to saunter down the street you scurried through as a scared teenager, reminding you once again of everything you never had, so then grows your resentment at still being stuck there.

This is no one’s fault and we are none of us perfect. I myself write this article from a fabulous three bedroom flat in Barcelona were vegan* brunches are advertised in the window of the café a few doors down from me, in an area, I am told, taxi drivers refused to go through prior to the 1992 Olympics, when it was populated predominantly by working class Catalans and immigrants from Pakistan, North Africa and the Middle East. It’s not obvious at first, the art galleries and bike shops that look like art galleries may distract you, but the ghosts of ghettos past are certainly there. Nonetheless, I take comfort in the fact that my awareness of this familiar situation encourages me to engage with the situation by educating myself in order to understand the local socioeconomic situation and contribute to long-standing local businesses that need the support, rather than just creaming off the cool of the area whilst showing no respect to those who must tolerate the high turnover of international hipsters with no interest in learning their language nor exploring their culture.

Gentrification is a reflection of the inequality and injustice that continually festers in our society. In the UK as inequality increases and the homeless are no longer ignored, but instead greeted by spikes at night as a reminder of their problematic existence, hikes in South London rents mean that those who have spent a lifetime in these previously neglected areas are simply being out-priced out of the area and the city alike.

The current issue is not that Peckham has changed. The issue is that Peckham hasn’t changed at all. A boy growing up in Peckham suffers the same hiked probability that he will become somehow become embroiled in violent crime as his counterpart did ten years ago. Despite huge efforts from local councils which have seen tremendous slashes in teen pregnancy statistics, a girl growing up in Peckham is still more likely to fall pregnant before her 20th birthday than a girl based in any other London borough, except neighbouring Lambeth.

I’m sure I was not the only child growing up in a neglected area who at some point experienced a profound epiphany which led to the understanding that actually I was not part of a national community in the way others were. The institutions and structures that govern us do not expect a 100% success rate which for me meant that many of my friends and neighbours would be unfortunately and inevitably among those who fell outside of those structures and would simply be forgotten, whether dead or in jail or just piss poor and angry their whole lives. It’s the realisation that actually not all that many people care about you and you can watch the children of Sweets Way N20 experience it here.

Pushing poverty from post code to post code seems to be a process that continually reproduces itself in society but the ignorance that often accompanies it is an individual choice. Today you can take a pleasant stroll through SE-anywhere, stop for a lovely coffee or maybe some delicious Jamaican food on the way and remain blissfully unaware of the ongoing local issues, from parents battling addiction and their children turning to crime to failing schools and crumbling hospitals.

Although no amount of cocktails and coffee can save our schools or hospitals, nor make the area any safer to grow up in, we can make the most of this transitional phase to learn about the issues faced by our neighbours that the media has consistently failed to communicate. It is easy to bury your head in your smartphone or cross the road at any sign of perceived danger but there is much to be gained by simply doing some research and befriending your neighbour. An area with such different worlds colliding is the perfect opportunity for us to discover the experiences of others and truly understand the fabric of our society, and perhaps then more young people growing up in the area might have the sentiment that someone somewhere noticed their existence.

*It’s actually a real shame that veganism is even associated with irritating hipsters, it’s supposed to be excellent for the environment.