My delicious ‘Afrigasm’

We’re always ready to travel far to get satisfaction. God knows we’re prepared to get hot and sweaty. So when, after months of romanticizing and exoticizing, our dreams finally take off, there is only one thought on our mind: Oh Africa, I’m coming!
The experience of the Afrigasm is limited to a particular group. We tend to be white Euro-Americans and are drawn to Sub Saharan Africa by an urge to explore and to do good, or by a more existential desire for an encounter with radical difference. We come as tourists, interns, entrepreneurs, volunteers and exchange students. Quite a few of us engage in sustainable development projects, while others’ efforts are more short-term in nature or draw some criticism here and there (think Invisible Children). What we all share, however (and this is crucial to get an Afrigasm), is an “Africa Sweet Spot,” which we express in This is Africa-themed stories that keep the home-front updated about our African adventures. We used to write endless emails about these experiences, but now we post them on our blogs and successive FB posts. ‘This is Africa’ or TIA, connotes the exotic and romantic randomness that we Western visitors attach to Africa. TIA sentiments are the foreplay of our Afrigasms, and they overwhelm us every time we witness ‘the hopeless continent’ in action.

Afrigasms feel as good as they do because they confirm the way media (and our own local mythologies, passed around by and down from friends and family) taught us to view the continent: Mostly a place of hunger, disease, helplessness and struggle. They consolidate the position of the African other. This African other is slow, late, poor, powerless, dresses funny, drips exotic, and speaks with the television African accent. He or she always has time to chat. No rush. We admire his courage to live by the day, we adore her children and can’t get enough of the amazing stories he has to tell: everything from tragic sob-stories to courageous struggle narratives. We respond open-mouthed with “Oh my God, so you were beaten up by the apartheid police”? Afrigasm! Even when we’re hungrily waiting for our (super cheap!) sushi and cocktail plate (should we add ‘in Cape Town’ here?), only to find out the waiter mixed up the Mohito with a ToffeeBerry Martini, we shake our heads, smile, think TIA and whoop! … Exactly.

Don’t be mistaken, we are aware of our stately mix of white guilt and our distaste for  our colonial capitalist ancestors; Eish, they were arrogant! But today, we have the chance to make up for it. Or at least a little bit. Driven by a remix of the White Man’s Burden, thousands of us are currently pursuing Afrigasms. Africa’s landscape, chaos, slowness, ever-so-friendly but powerless people, and last but not least, Africa’s endearing children offer us an emotionally fulfilling experience which is unique in its gratifying potential. That’s how these same children – with or without consent – often end up in picture frames in Eindhoven, Hannover or Tennessee.

Though many consider Cape Town too developed to be a part of Africa and prefer to detach it from the rest of the homogenously-postulated continent, it still manages to deliver Afrigasms wholesale. “I just feel happier here, I love this city!” Of course we do. Even with a study loan or a – by Western standards – modest income, Cape Town offers us the opportunity to move up a social class and enjoy a standard of living many of us could never afford back home. Try having your sushi and cocktails in Stuttgart or Den Haag thrice a week with a study loan. (Didn’t think so. But can you blame us?)

Yet it’s not so much the high life in itself that turns our Africa Sweet Spot on. Rather, it’s the combination of many things; yes, the joyful upper class experience in places like the Radisson, Sheraton or Cape Town’s Camps Bay, and the chance to stroll the streets in bohemian Observatory in bare feet without worrying about tetanus turn us on; but so do the ‘do-good’ opportunities on every street corner and the chance to generously reward our cleaning lady with a bag of left-overs, whilst paying her the equivalent of a couple of Stockholmian espressos for a day of labor.

So every time we see a broken-down car being pushed down the street or when we find ourselves waiting for a late taxi and catch a ‘umlungu’ or ‘Hey Lady!’ from a bypassing overcrowded bus, we sigh, we smile, we think TIA and whoop!

It is these kinds of TIA experiences that are often written home about. Whilst seemingly innocent and often written with affection, it is these nonstories and their reproducing position within the dominant western discourse on Africa that keep our distorted perceptions and disturbing stereotypes alive. They subtly legitimize the occasional KFC and Big Black Mambo joke, when (guess what!) they’re racist! It’s this same legitimizing power that made the editor of the Dutch magazine Jackie wonder why people were overreacting to her magazine’s lively explanation on how to dress like a N* bitch, late last year. The Western discourse on Africa, grounded in centuries-old traditions of rigid stereotyping, continues to define the African ‘other’ who is most often portrayed as a powerless victim or random struggler.

Successful and actualized Africans hardly ever get a place in this discourse. Nor does functional Africa. Because they don’t appeal to our more ‘real’ African experiences (which are, needless to say, different in various cities, locales, and regions, and dependent on the day, weather, our mood/mood of the persons we encounter, and maybe also the way the wind blew) and don’t correspond with what media has told us ‘Africa’ is. The problem is that by disseminating and singling out the TIA non-stories, we ourselves actively perpetuate the same colonial discourse that has dominated Western media and legitimized white domination for centuries. We choose not to see our own experiences as random, individualized, and varied. The assertive, self-reliant, successful, confident, functional and orderly version of the many ‘Africas’ out there won’t help string our special experience to those millions of TIAs that came before it.

My Dutch driver’s license is about to expire, so I applied for a South African driver’s test today. Around 2pm I entered my local traffic department office, where a lady approached me and asked me how she could assist me. Professionally. She directed me to the appropriate queue to get my application form stamped. Slickly. The queue moved quickly and I got my stamp within three minutes. Efficiently. The lady behind the counter referred me to office 14 where I would undergo an eye test. Logically. Less than 10 minutes later I found myself staring through a modern machine, following instructions to count differently-sized squares. Finally, I paid my 69 Rand application fee and walked out with a printout listing the date for my exam. It stressed I had to be on time.

A nonstory indeed. Hardly an experience, really. But it’s a manifestation of something that shouldn’t be ignored and is worth writing home about: It’s Functional Africa. Quite the turn-on, isn’t it?

* Maria Hengeveld studies Sociology and Gender at the University of Cape Town. She currently works for the Children’s Radio Foundation. Previously, she blogged here (with TJ Tallie) about pinkwashing South Africa. The images are by Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, a Kenyan photographer working in Nairobi.


14 thoughts on “My delicious ‘Afrigasm’

  1. You’ve definitely identified a ‘tribe’ – spot on. But I think you’re overly cynical about the discourse they participate in; it’s not all ‘TIA’ stories. Foreigners I met in South Africa were indeed in search of something exotic, the ultimate ‘other’, but is that so bad? Is it better to just stay in your home country and read the papers? Or ignore ‘Africa’ as not interesting? Many ended up staying, marrying local, and living ‘another’ life – a good life, which indeed would not have been possible in Stuttgart or Stockholm – and from this vantage I think are well-placed to undermine the cliches about Africa which they left behind. It’s a new breed of cosmopolite, which to me both represents and enriches the world we live in.

  2. I largely agree with Marian’s comment above…yes, there is something right on about this commentary, but like many similar commentaries, it doesn’t leave the expat in Africa (for whatever reason) much of a space from which to legitimately experience or even comment upon their own life in Africa. It’s as tiresome and alienating, in its own way, as the repetitive nature of expat commentary on Africa and the whole TIA thing. That said, the photographs are just terrific!

  3. Expats are a tribe, but I think the whole relationship is more complicated. A lot of expats (development, humanitarian workers, exchange students, researchers…) live in Africa for a limited period of time, say one, two, three years and I think their (our) relationship with Africa should be looked at as any other relationship. The first stages of relationships are always very romantic and that brings out the Afrigasms. I mean, isn’t it very normal that when you leave your own premises the first things you are going to notice are the ones that are different from what you are used to, no matter where you go (this is not something that would apply to Africa only) ? However after a certain period some people do grow out of having gin and tonic in Karen Blixen’s house after seeing the elephant orphanage as a kick and they actually notice digital art, boost of local social media scene and they hang out and exchange ideas with their local peers that are very successful… The fact that you live in any African country does change you and you should also allow the fact that some people (even before moving to Africa) are not completely influenced by colonial or neocolonial discourse that has dominated media in their own countries.
    Africa(s) is (are) very functional, but at the same time (like in any other country in the world) some things just don’t function and why not tell it as it is. I mean if you go to a bank in Sierra Leone right now (god forbid on a Friday afternoon) there is a big chance you wont get your money or will get payed out in small notes that have been taken out of the circulation years ago, but are now being used because a lot rich people took all the money out of the banks before elections and it’s causing problems to a lot of people. Or the fact that you have to bribe an officer on Malawian border in order to even pay for a visa, because on his paper it says that Yugoslavia still exists and hence Slovenia is not an independent country, so the regular rules do not apply to you. So should I not talk about this kind of things because it will add to a ”negative” picture about Africa that is already out there or because I am a European living in Africa?

  4. Yes …. and that is the miracle of communication: it works because we constantly misunderstand each other. Also, your argument definitely cuts both ways – look at how Africa watches Paris, London and “the US”.

  5. My first African experiance-driving to my hostel from the Accra airport- was definitely an “Afrigasm”. I do think a lot of people go there with visions of hungry children and wild animals and then write blogs about how sad/different it is from “civilization”. Of course Africa is different than America. Alabama is way different than California and they are in the same country. I hope as a visitor to Africa I can return to the US and give an accurate and non-stereotypical view to other less-informed Americans. People ask me ridiculous questions all the time and I can educate them to where a particular country is located , assure them that not every country is entrenched in civil war and not everyone is dying of AIDS.

  6. Thanks a lot for the sharp and insightful comments, everyone! Very interesting angles, that will definitely help to understand the ‘Afrigasm’ phenomenon…

  7. Thought-provoking read. But don’t assume the phenomenon is limited to the African continent. And don’t assume it’s always white Westerners playing up the Otherness of Africans; my experience has taught me that it goes both ways, though I admit that when I’m being Othered it doesn’t have anywhere near the same potential to reinforce negative stereotypes.

    Ultimately, how am I going to pass up making a post about how I was detained by Nigerian police and made to pay a bribe? A story’s a story, and Othering an institution or a peculiar situation is different than Othering a human being… it’s the latter that crosses a line.

  8. It is funny, I am South African that came to Europe and currently living in Italy. And I came also with a kind of romantic expectation to drink coffee, here ciao bella everywhere and eat pasta, but sooner than later the romance disappears and one realises that Italy is not just Diane Lane film. I soon realised my faults and my own bigotry, when referring to things that just doesn’t function in Italy. We are all at fault even Africans. That said, it is true that the stereotypes of most Europeans are not as damaging as those established over a long history of colonialism. We should all be aware of the ideas we hold and retell. And it is a little bit arrogant also to say that we shouldn’t go to other countries with certain stories, the whole reason one travels is to see something different in order to grow and broaden one’s horizons.

  9. I think I am the first Black African to comment on this post, and I live in The Netherlands, as an Expat, but I am so overwhelmingly surprised by the view from Exapts in Cape Town/South Africa calling elements of Maria’s piece, ‘cynical’. This article had me in stitches, in tears and was really sobering and humbling, all at once. It took me a while to comment because I first had to walk around The Hague this evening and consider whether I also consciously (or sub-consciously) stereotype my Dutch hosts (or the millions of people of 26 other EU nationalities also freely able to move in-and-around this country and Europe as a whole) and whether I somehow contribute to ‘Eurogasms’ – and thus should also denounce the truths Maria has alluded to in the post as being slightly exaggerated. Unfortunately, after the third person was so impressed at my ‘goed Nederlands’ after only 2 years of living here, and after the fourth police officer asked me whether I was lost, (most likely because single black females taking a walk in a European city before sunset is too rare a feat not to warrant some sort of suspicion) I have to conclude that, no, just as Maria defined a small demographic of white European nationals living on the African continent I tried to define my own breed of Black African Expats who might fit into a similar demographic, the only problem being that I couldn’t. I think this was the whole point of Maria’s work: to point out the danger in only ever having one side to any story. What I understood from the piece is not that there is a total absence of positive depictions of the strength, character, diversity and opportunity in what Maria terms, “functional Africa”, but rather that whatever little discourse there is on it is so disproportionately skewed and overwhelmingly locked out of Western media (and inadvertently the average Western person’s mindset) that it might as well not be there in the first place. Furthermore, the article simply points out how far-reaching the consequence of this is, even for those who come to Africa with an intention to change or further explore and discover the continent.

    I don’t think the post was supposed to belittle or diminish the individual experiences of thousands of individuals, but rather to challenge people to question how they perceive themselves and others in Africa after they have arrived, and whether this is a just, fair and honourable perception. The post calls for us to all measure the impact our behaviour has on perpetuating deeply entrenched stereotypes, and to affirm that whether Expats willingly or unwillingly contribute to it, the end result is a limited opportunity for Africans and ‘functional Africa’ to be seen, heard and treated as equal players and parties in the discourse on Africa.

    That Expats feel they are somewhat denied an opportunity to express legitimate discontent in Africa for fear they will be seen as “neo-colonialist” in no way deters from the fact that when I complain about the awful and inefficient service in a cafe on Prinsegracht in Amsterdam, or when I check into public transport using my electronic chip-kaart and it removed 80 Euros instead of the 8 Euros my journey should cost, it will simply be shrugged off as a technical malfunction; it will never be attributed to a long history of incompetence and inefficiency falsified and orchestrated by an entire group of people in order to subjugate others. I would be absurd to consider all Dutch people as well as the English who designed the technology, not to mention the Australians who marketed it to the Dutch Ministry of Transport, as somehow “less-than” or in need of ‘rescuing and saving’, nor would my personal experience be held with such a weight, both in Holland and on the world stage at large, as being the consummate depiction and sole image of The Netherlands. It would not be repeated so often that it would suddenly become “fact” nor would I be forced to challenge the way I live and conduct myself in Europe because of it.

    I believe this to be the major difference between Maria’s Afrigasms and my non-existent Eurogasms. When I talk about some of the xenophobic experiences I have had here, and compare them to those of my white African counterparts, it becomes more clear why it is indeed very necessary to talk about Africa more positively, in a more balanced manner , more affirmatively and to do so more consciously. When we portray Africa in this “Afrigasmic” manner, we do more than just belittle the continent. We also belittle the people, and I mean the Black ones. If we are really post-racial, just Expats along a journey of self-discovery or people claiming to be open-minded and progressive, we need to do some internal examination and consider whether we not only hold too steadfastly to the Afrigasmic-outplaying stereotype or whether we don’t but none-the-less do not intercede often enough and loud enough to dispel the century-old stereotypes which hurt Africa, and hurt the people. At the end of the day, Africa is more than a jungle, a desert, a few world wonders and a safari: Africa, like Europe, is home to a significant proportion of the world’s people. That is what it is about and should remain that way.

    Thanks for the post, Maria. It was really well-written! (Sorry that I took so much space to respond).

  10. To all the expats – remember that snakes will always bear snakes. My own view is that if expats of whatever background want to cling to their beliefs about Africa regardless of their experiences – I say good luck to them. Fact is, none will stop Africa from developing and claiming its rightful place in the world – whether the West pitys it or not – this is a natural phenomena.

  11. Loved this article, and especially Ndaka’s comment! In Cape Town, perhaps even more than elsewhere, there are some interesting ideas and slippery concepts to play with around this ‘tribe’. I love teasing the many wonderful Americans I work with here about ‘coming to save us’;). And generally the ‘tribe’ (as if it’s a homogenous thing at all!) is pretty good at self reflection. I do get angry when people talk about Cape Town as ‘Africa Lite’ though, that increasingly common phrase has crept into the lexicon of interns and semester abroad students alike and it contains all the prejudice and expectation you guys mention. But it doesn’t anger me any more than when South Africans flippantly use TIA or ‘Africa time’…
    If an experience in Cape Town challenges some of those underlying constructions of Africa then that’s a good thing. I wish more young people from SA could have the kind of experiences foreign interns and students do in SA, it would be good for us.

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