Opinion

Travelling in Africa? Say no to poverty porn

A trip to Lagos gets the Sunday Times Lifestyle editor thinking about how she glamourises the plight of our fellow Africans

18 January 2019 - 12:01
Everything in Lagos, Nigeria, feels like an adventure - evens a tuk tuk ride.
Everything in Lagos, Nigeria, feels like an adventure - evens a tuk tuk ride.
Image: 123RF/agafapaperiapunta

The car lurches forward. It comes to a sudden stop. We swerve to avoid a truck/taxi/bus that’s coming too close for comfort. Vendors walk in between the cars, selling anything from phone chargers to refreshments. It’s so hot and humid that opening the windows for fresh air only brings suffocation. The air conditioning alternates between blissful relief from the heat and hypothermia-inducing cold.

It’s Friday afternoon, and we’re in Lagos traffic. We’ve been in the same spot for what feels like hours. This is the infamous traffic everyone warned us about. If I were sitting in a car between Joburg and Pretoria during rush hour, I would be incredibly annoyed. But I’m in Nigeria’s biggest city, and what would be an inconvenience back home feels like an adventure.

In fact, everything in Lagos feels like an adventure. I complain to a local that the constant sound of generators that I’ve read about in novels by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinelo Okparanta is absent. I’ve taken pictures of fancy pubs and clear-blue swimming pools as though I don’t regularly see these in Johannesburg.

When driving past a taxi rank and a bustling market — which could easily be in the Jozi CBD — I take countless pictures with my phone. Seeing men carry goods on their heads, like women in rural South Africa often do, makes me go “awww” — it takes all of my self-control not to take a picture. The “chaos” of the airport and the potholed roads leading to our digs in an upmarket part of town charm me.

While I am there, I see no issues with my romanticising of Lagos — this city feels like home, and I even start thinking that my ancestors must have migrated south from the western part of Africa.

Thinking back, I realise I behaved like a privileged Westerner on a sabbatical in Africa “The Motherland” rather than as the black South African — who has lived everywhere from semi-rural areas and townships to city centres, gritty neighbourhoods, and tree-lined suburbs — I am. I shamefully glamourised the everyday struggles of working-class Nigerians the same way I had done with people in Zanzibar and Mozambique before.

I realise I behaved like a privileged Westerner on a sabbatical in Africa 'The Motherland'

And I know I’m not alone in this behaviour. A lot of us (so-called woke black folk) are quick to call out and even make fun of (mainly white) Westerners who visit developing countries and end up taking selfies with snotty-nosed, beaming black children, yet we are not immune to similar behaviour when we visit other African nations.

We sometimes take artistic pictures of dilapidated buildings, walls with the paint chipping from years of neglect, and rusty old cars on “chaotic” roads; pictures for which we’ll find the perfect filter before posting them on Instagram, anticipating the heart-eye emojis from fellow lovers of Africa who don’t realise that we’re exoticising, glamourising, and othering the poverty of our neighbours.

“I don’t understand people from Joburg who say they love Lagos,” someone said to me. “You guys have electricity!” That last bit — the one about electricity — was one I heard a number of times. At one point I enthusiastically replied, “Who needs electricity?!”

Are you kidding me? This is the same person who freaks out and whose lower lip drags on the floor when load-shedding hits my neighbourhood. The same person who thinks that the Joburg CBD ought to be cleaned up. The same person who is outraged when she sees a minibus taxi that’s falling apart, endangering the lives of its occupants.

Yet when I leave South Africa and head to the rest of the continent, I suddenly think the same standards of living I find unacceptable here make for beautiful, quaint, and “real” Instagram pictures over there. What’s so charming about people struggling to make a living?

It’s fine for us to call out Westerners (regardless of their race, because African-Americans in the Motherland are prone to this behaviour too) when they glamourise difficult circumstances of living, but we also need to check our own privilege sometimes. It’s not cute when other people fetishise black South Africa, so why is it cute when we do it to other parts of Africa?

• This article was originally published in The Edit, a standalone fashion magazine sent to select Sunday Times print subscribers. Subscribe now.

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