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.
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.