In a recent interview, Pepijn Vloemans, a regular commentator in Dutch mainstream press and the author of the book ‘Wat hebben we weer genoten’ (What a joy we had), described how his drive for adventure and experimental urge to test himself in a low-comfort environment led him to Africa. We’ve lifted and translated some highlights from the interview:
Vloemans: In the Netherlands I lead my comfortable life, while so many things are going on in the world, of which I have no knowledge at all. I thought to myself: “What am I still doing here? I need to leave!” My goal was to test myself in a less comfortable environment. Without thinking I booked a trip to one of the unsafest places in the world. Only roughly did I outline my route. I wanted to travel up along the Nile, through Uganda, to continue to South Sudan, which had just become independent. I had not read a Lonely Planet in advance. I decided to simply go.
Interviewer: You are not particularly advertising Africa in your book.
Vloemans: I intentionally didn’t romanticize the story and left out the beautiful sunsets. Reading about how merry the life of Africans is annoys me, which is why I wanted to show its shadow side. The people over there don’t complain about their situation and as a consequence there is no progress. My book is a praise to the chagrin. [The Dutch’ never-ending] complaints about delayed trains might be bad, but it does lead to improvement. In Africa buses only leave when they are full. Apparently no one minds to be late.
Next to the absence of outrage, the short term thinking of many Africans surprised me. I felt I was constantly living in some student digs. For every problem, they seek a ‘houtje touwtje’ [ad hoc] solution. Is the bus door broken? Well, let’s go without it then. It scared me how many people only look one day ahead. I saw the value in the long-term solutions as we have them in Holland, such as old age pensions and hospitals… It almost feels naughty to write something negative about Africa, but the progress that needs to take place is so fundamental that I wondered what development cooperation could contribute. Politically, I became more right wing.
The interview then drifts off into how Vloemans discovers he actually needs his comfort and envies anthropologists, whose energy and interests leads them to indulge into different cultures, before getting back to familiar subjects:
Interviewer: Despite diarrhea, visa stress, unbearable heat and pests, did you also have good times?
Vloemans: Definitely, at certain moments. The city of Gondar was a paradise to me after my journey through the dessert. And the city of Addis Abeba, high up in the Ethiopian mountains surprised me with its fresh air, fresh espressos and Eucalyptus scents. But after those rough weeks I especially enjoyed coming back home to our wealthy country, where everything is well managed.
The book comes with a blurb by much-praised author and much-invited post-colony expert Adriaan van Dis: “Pepijn Vloemans is a true Africa traveller: a man who explores the abysses and the heart of darkness.”
To ensure a minimum of lost-in-translation-damage, we have sent Pepijn an email. He has not yet responded.