Africa, Minus Elephants

Pursuant to some lab results received today, I think I can now officially state that I survived my trip to Africa (wait – what’s the incubation period of malaria again?). Now I have two weeks at home, which is a good opportunity to try to process what was, all in all, a pretty complicated and confusing experience.

My trip did not meet expectations – either mine or everyone else’s. As for me, I suppose I simply didn’t expect to be working as much. But it’s been interesting to talk to people at home and realize what a specific and circumscribed idea people have of what a white person is “supposed” to do in Africa. When I was going through customs on the way back, I was pulled out of line for an extensive search, along with another young college student. She was coming from Kenya, and when I asked her what she had been doing, she responded that she worked in an orphanage for two weeks and then went on a safari. When I told her I spent seven weeks with farmers, she didn’t seem particularly interested. I suppose that’s the origin of my title – “Africa, Minus Elephants” – because my experience feels almost like it needs to be qualified or explicated.

Of course, when I think about it, the entire idea of saying I visited “Africa” is absurd. It’s a humongous continent, so only the most well-travelled person can really pretend to have seen “Africa.” But I think I take the cake: it hit me the other day that I never went more than one-hundred miles from Kampala (the unpaved, potholed roads make it seem further!). I never made it to a National Park, much less anywhere outside of Uganda’s central district.

After all, though, this sort of partial, localized view of “Africa” is exactly what most Ugandans get. My college-educated, wealthy(ish) enumerators had never been outside Uganda, and most had never even been far outside Kampala. This leads me to the crux of what I’m getting at, which is also the central redeeming part of flying twenty-five hours without getting a single picture of a monkey: my experience of Africa feels like it was just a smidgen closer to that of most Africans than most whites’. While it’s perilous to push this claim to a more genuine experience to far, a post-trip glimpse in my guidebook seems to confirm it: the guide – written for budget travelers – doesn’t even mention the existence of guest houses in the price range where I stayed – and writes about Masaka – where I spent two weeks, and is one of Uganda’s largest towns – that no white people ever really spend any time there.

As a sociologist, I like to know about and understand people. Uganda made me realize, however, some pretty glaring missing pieces in my picture of the world. It occurred to me one day while out in the field, watching a villager till his tiny plot by hand, that I was getting a glimpse into not just how half of the current world population lives, but how the vast majority of human beings have lived throughout recorded history. Maybe that’s an overgeneralization, but it’s a much better sense of the lifestyle than I got earlier this summer driving through Iowa.

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