Why I Dream of Africa

Authors Note: This blog contains images of non-sexualized nudity, nonetheless, they may not be appropriate for some.

I have smart friends.

Well, mostly. I also have a friend who once texted an entire party that she was “lost on the corner of Paul and Ott Street,” only three blocks away from my house where she had been over 100 times. But that’s a different story for a different day.

This story is about a discussion I had with a friend who always keeps me on my toes, we can call her K (you know who you are!). As we sat in the bar enjoying the trickster nature of the first day of Thanksgiving Break, the one that fools you into thinking you have all the time in the world for homework, friends, family, and food, I told her about a show I had been watching the night before on YouTube: BBC’s Tribal Wives.

I told K the show was becoming a bit of a problem in my life – in short, I was obsessed. I couldn’t stop watching.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it shows women in Africa, who live so differently than us – they are amazing! Women from Britain who have experienced trauma in their own life go there and get to know them.

“Go there to get better? How?”

“Well, life is so different there, I mean, these women work so hard, sometimes they are the ones who take care of the whole tribe, while the men just stand around with goats and spit or whatever. I guess it makes them feel lucky and teaches them to appreciate the little things.”

“Lucky to live in ‘civilized society’?”

“I guess so. I mean one tribe in Afar castrates it’s females. They don’t see anything wrong with, because none of their female ancestors have a history of sexual pleasure.  It also leads to a lot of deaths in childbirth, but the tradition is more important than female safety. I mean, imagine that K – I know you’re not down with that.”

“So even though this British girl might have been abused or had substance problems, she goes there and learns to heal?”

“Yes.”

“So the show is “othering”? It’s making others feel better by setting up a dichotomy?” K’s voice  was starting to get louder.

“No, no..”

“Yeah it is. They go to a third world to appreciate living in a better place. That’s not empowering to the “trial wives.” Just some white guy in their face with a camera wanting to take advantage.”

Hmm. Maybe she had a point. This is the part where I started nervously peeling the label off my PBR bottle, while desperately trying  to change the topic.

But K didn’t let me off that easy. Like I said, she’s smart. The conversation went on for at least another beer, and though at the time I was mad at her for ruining something I loved, reflection since has shown me that she was right. I couldn’t help but remember the single middle-aged woman whose own selfish desire for attention led to a ceremony in which she was “married” to the only single man in the tribe. Though it was a joke to her, the marriage was as real to the tribe as a trip to City Hall would be in states, and the man was heartbroken when she left.

And what about the recovering alcoholic who grew close to the castrated women? When she learned of their history, the tribe thought she would never stop crying, but her tears were not for them.

“I have everything and these women have nothing,” she confides to the camera. “I wake up in my own vomit and drink like I’m trying to kill myself, and why? They are the one’s suffering.”

Although her empathy is clear, her concern lies solely with the fault of her own perceptions.

However, a positive aspect of the show is that the “tribal wives” enjoy tons of airtime, all of which is translated for the viewer. They are a close-knit, funny group, very much like women I know in my own life. One of the best scenes takes place in an older woman’s hut, where the women gather every week to wash and braid their hair, but more importantly, gossip. They are sitting on a dirt floor in Africa, but their conversation could come straight from my own hairdresser’s salon.

It is also interesting to learn how much the women know about Western culture. One woman shared, “We know the jungle is not infinite. There is an end. And white people are taking it away, making it smaller. We know you buy food, but we have never bought food in our lives and we don’t want to. It’s not fresh, it’s not good.” While I was concerned that the British would get sick from the foreign food, the opposite was true, and one woman even said, “I have never felt better, and I have never eaten such a varied diet of fresh food.”

When I originally watched the show, I missed the “othering” that K immediately caught, seeing the show through totally Western eyes. While the tribal wives do have a lot to share with Western women, it is not because they are so different from us, but because they are similar. Our perceptions of the world are actually at a disadvantage, for so much of contemporary thought is based on media influence. These women live untainted, building their feminine consciousness on what they experience firsthand. And that, K, is why I dream of Africa.

3 thoughts on “Why I Dream of Africa

  1. Exceptional post that I’ll keep replaying in my head when I start going down that path that “students just don’t get it.”

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  2. Carlos, are you a teacher? What kind of experiences have you had with students who “just don’t get it?”

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    1. I teach classes on communication, culture and identity. Often, the most frustrating experiences are exchanges with well-meaning, good-hearted individuals who want to change our world of its inequitable relations and oppressing practices, but who (unlike you) resist the difficult work of deconstructing the real and imaginary structures identity and power in their own families and communities. I often feel frustration and anger (and sometimes read that frustration in course evaluations) toward me for being persistent that they take a minute to listen to how their othering language and assumptions implicates their (and often my) identity. Your post helps to keep things in check when I begin to think “these students don’t get it,” because I’m sure by that time my own frustration is on probably well displayed on my face. I want to be more like K. Maybe if we taught more classes over PBR’s….

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