Lessons from Africa

Posted on Posted in Wander, Wonder

It’s been months since I’ve left the red African soil (thanks for ruining half my wardrobe, by the way) and I’m still not over it. Every single time someone asks me about my trip, or I see a feature on TV, or when I hear the President Lungu talk – God, do I detest him – I go right back to those five weeks.

It wasn’t just my first time travelling to Africa, it was my first time travelling alone. And when your tickets are messed up, your vaccinations are a tad bit delayed, your visa situation is tricky, you are jittery. But God bless Kenya Airlines and their crew, because they were the best I’ve encountered. A lady schooled a guy all up in my personal space (reminder – my shoulders are not your head rest) and this other guy from the crew and I had a legit conversation at the very back of the plane at about 5:30 am in the morning. Because why the hell not?

And that was my first impression of Africa, before I even landed in Africa. Warm, friendly, genuine, brave, strong. So many adjectives in my mind, I got down to collect my bags. Guess what? They lost my bags. The airline freaking lost my bags. Losing my cool and almost crying, I went to a kind man named Martin. Martin, I will never forget you for helping a shaking, scared me in getting her bags back. Also to the old man who gave me his email ID while aggressively flirting, there’s one finger I have designated for you.

And so it happened. I saw how Nairobi’s traffic is slow but nobody bothers honking. People overtake, and the others let them. There is some rush to get places, but then again, most drivers are chill. They just wait for cars to move and reach whenever they do. The security about the airport in Kenya bothered me – I kid you not, we don’t have that kind of security even in our vulnerable, conflict zones. To think that terror is the one battle we all fight, it makes you wonder how ridiculous it is to spread hate on lines of race and religion. And that applies to every aspect – to the girl who pulled her skirt a little while walking down the road, to the school kids who were crammed in a long bus ride, to the beggar on the street. We all have the exact same battles, and yet we choose to deny it.

With these thoughts in my head, I landed in Zambia. No customs, basic immigration formality, and I was out. Rebeccah, who is one of my favourite people on the planet right now, was waiting for me. And she hugged me, she hugged me tight. Finally, I knew there was someone I told rely on in this foreign land. I knew a person, and her smile was genuine. She cared, and it made me feel safe for the first time in two days.

In just a few hours of reaching my new home, Sunbird, I realised how wrong I was to assume it would be just one person I could rely on. My fellow Mzungus payed for me because I had no forex, and the staff was quick to show me around and make me feel at home. I could rely on our house moms to get me blankets and warm water at 2 am when I had a malaria scare, and I could depend on people who worked around to get a bug off my freaking mosquito net. I could rely on the children who escorted me to my placement when I was lost. I could depend on a nice taxi driver who spotted me, sobbing on the street, and took me home and offered comforting words. I could trust the Shoprite security guard to stand with me while I waited for a taxi.

But most of all, I began to trust myself. I had more faith in my instincts and intuition more than ever. And for the first time in my life, I stroke conversation with complete strangers in a village, and had some locally brewed beer – hated it, but no regrets. I jumped off a bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and totally accepted that I could perhaps die of a cheetah attack or an infection as the aftermath. I am glad neither of it happened, but I when that cheetah had grabbed me, I had come to terms with death and a possible feature on TV. It did teach me, however, to respect the wild and to never, ever, undermine the strength of an animal. However seemingly docile that little cheetah cub was, her jaw was inches away from my neck and claws inside my skin.

On my second day there, Kennedy – Rebeccah’s husband and the most patient person I know – told us about Africa time. Everything happened on a relative time. The clock there is just for the sake of us Mzungus, he said, but everything in Africa happens when it happens. And so it did. The school didn’t follow a timetable, the taxi drivers were almost never on time, the immigration office didn’t really care about deadlines. And it irritated me, but for a short while. Because then, I got swept into the concept of time being relative. I began prioritising having breakfast and high fiving random kids over reach the school on time. I began to learn to be and just let be – except when it came to food, I needed my food to be on time. But the point was that even though I take pride in being punctual, this new philosophy made sense in a strange manner. To live life in the moment and not as slaves of two wands on a round glass with numbers on it. It made perfect sense, and I began to embrace it. I was happy.

This one part, I cannot generalise, but I do vouch it to be true for Livingstone. People are so much more liberal than one would assume. The teachers in my school and I had a talk and they were all about safe sex before marriage, they had no shame in talking about HIV prevention. Hell, if I had been drinking and kissing on the streets in Mumbai, I would’ve been arrested. Not there, not in Livingstone. Bar hoping with my hunter’s gold in my hand was the weekend routine, and I appreciated the freedom.

However, it wasn’t all fun and games that I learned things through. For a country with so many people being politically aware, they could do nothing to stop Lungu from being re-elected. That doesn’t speak for the failure of democracy only in Zambia, but across the world. It might be more subtle in our countries, but if we look closely, democratic spaces are fast shrinking. What is left is an illusion, a false sense of control, which people in Zambia never felt they had.

Although I felt safe for most of my trips to and from town, there were also times when my hand would be grabbed, I would be pulled by my waist. I have never experienced such violent street harassment, and what made it worse was that there were no measures to protect women. Granted that locals claimed it happened way more with Mzungu women than Zambian women (apparently we’re exotic), the fact that someone can grab, grope and try to force a kiss on me is scary beyond measure when I know the law and the social construct is not by my side.

It’s easy to forget the privilege that we have, that our forefathers fought for, the causes youth comes on the street when your rights aren’t violated. The truth is, most humans face aggression in multiple ways, but we refuse to acknowledge them. Perhaps because we’re normalised, perhaps because we’re blinded. Going to other cultures, other countries forces you to revisit your entire life and principles, and you become so much aware of the situation we are in, as humans. That some people do have some privilege, and others face hardships based on their sex, their gender, their race, their religion, their beliefs. Witnessing violations as a foreigner in a completely different context than we’re normalised to makes it more glaringly obvious.

Africa reminds me of the human roots – both angelic and demonic. It’s such a diverse continent, and I haven’t seen much of it. I would be stupid and ignorant to generalise things, I know. There’s much to see and learn from this continent, the continent I plan to move to (honestly, I would if I could). But man, is it exquisite, that place. They are so rich, in resources, in reason, in wisdom, in hope, in energy. There is so much to learn, so much to understand. An entire lifetime isn’t enough to even begin and appreciate the continent, but that wouldn’t be stopping me.

On that note, I would be happy if someone is willing to fund my next trip – ideally to Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi and Kenya. Thank you.

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