I have found myself surprised by Namibia on several fronts. I have been surprised by how good the roads are. I have been surprised by how barren the land is, and how there is little local fresh produce, most of it coming from South Africa in exactly the kind of excessive plastic wrapping we buy our fruit and veg in Europe. I have been surprised by how forward-looking the people are, not holding grudges against their former colonial masters but excited about the prospects for their young country and confident that they will not repeat the mistakes of some of their neighbours.
Why have I been surprised by these and many other things?
Because they are different in Kenya. Kenyan roads are on the whole dreadful. Kenya is a lush and fertile country that grows amazing fruit and veg. Kenyans are, I feel, held back by their bitterness towards the injustice they were subjected to during colonisation.
Kenya is my only other experience of Sub-Saharan Africa. So I had subconsciously assumed that Namibia would be like Kenya. This is about as smart as assuming that one knows what Lithuania is like on the basis of having visited Spain. In other words: pretty stupid.
It made me wonder, though. Is this a particular, slightly racist, problem we have with Africa, or is it a more general, human reaction? Or is it just me?
I am beginning to suspect that it is the first of these options. “Black” (ie Sub-Saharan) Africa has held this special place in the imagination of westeners since the times of Dr Livingstone. It is exotic and it is mysterious. But it is all one. We cannot tell one country from another, let alone one tribe from the hundreds of others that exist. We assume that all Africans are Masai,* wear loin cloths, live in mud huts and consult their local witch doctor for their medical needs. They can all run a marathon in two hours flat, in bare feet. Development since the times of Dr Livingstone has been minimal – not in Africa, but in the mindsets of us westerners.
I would have thought that I was a bit better than the average westener in this regard, but, alas, I was not. Time for some self-reflection, I fear …
*Case on point: the tribe that Corinne Hofmann joined, and discussed in her Memoir The White Masai (Die weisse Massaï), was actually not the Masai at all, but the Samburu. I suppose The White Samburu just wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.