Ironies of Cross Cultural exchange and (Mis) representation of the ‘American’ culture

I have now been to approximately fifteen countries in Africa.  One consistent theme reoccurs. All throughout the continent of Africa one will sense the odoriferous entourage of well-intentioned, optimistic, adventurous American and European youth trekking to a new service post. 
Madonna previously adopted Malawian boy David Banda.
Madonna previously adopted Malawian boy David Banda.

I have now been to approximately fifteen countries in Africa.  One consistent theme reoccurs. All throughout the continent of Africa one will sense the odoriferous entourage of well-intentioned, optimistic, adventurous American and European youth trekking to a new service post. 

Fresh from undergrad with liberal views to change the world, limited work experience, but great grades and heavy doses of Americanism and Eurocentricism, these young over-achievers land into the most complex continent on earth with the aim of playing their role in the change that they have been told has brought them there. 

What is not questioned is the views that these young agents of change play within society, particularly in relation to Africa and its people.  In one conversation, a European-descending American woman from California indicates explicitly that she is not for Pan-African aims as it excludes her.

Simultaneously, she promotes Zionism and the continued military occupation by Israelis in a territory handed to them by American imperialist politicians and funded by Wall Street.  Listening as a fly on the wall in establishments in Kigali is fun as people do not know whether I am Rwandan or not. 

I listen in one cafe that well-intentioned ex-patriates frequent and find myself disgusted by the views expressed. The commentary that ensues about Africans’ English accents, having to learn an African language, the intolerable heat in the village, and the “African” way of doing things leads me to believe that this is for many, an anthropological excursion and adventure more so than anything else. 

That, within itself is not as bad as the excursion or adventure, is perhaps at the core of the true exchange.  Then, I am reminded of what is really going on for most of the people about whom I am speaking.  This is a truly first or second experience with being “the other.” 

The only problem I have with this otherness is that it is not the same as that which is experienced in the reverse.  Foreigners in Africa are often treated better, protected more, and welcomed wholeheartedly into the community in which they land. 

The “otherness” is actually a continuation of the state of privilege that many who reach African soil already experience as members of the dominant (and/or oppressive) community in their home country. 

Conversely, an African will enter Europe or the United States and in many cases learn the realities of discrimination that await in the West and the fact that the “otherness” of a person of color in Anglo-American / European society is a ticket to exclusion and persecution. 

Amadou Diallo learned that lesson in the harshest way in New York City. 

Eric Frimpong is learning that lesson in California.  What I am really trying to sight in all this rambling is a few things. 

The purpose of cross-cultural exchange should be somehow to bring about a change in the socio-economic imbalance and some transcendence beyond the us/them mentality. However, while young Americo-Europeans continue the blissful African experience, I do not necessarily see the real  change happening.

Another anecdote of some of the random annoyance that reminds me of what is really going on here in Africa: I listen at Simba Supermarket as an Anglo-American tells two Rwandan business men with visible pride that President Obama is “actually more Irish than he is African”. 

In his tone is a clear commentary that says, “your boy is really our boy.” 

While I won’t begin to discuss how I actually believe he’s right, it is very interesting what comes out of the mouths of many people as cultural representatives of their society. 

African Babies: The Latest Luxury Accessory

Two weeks ago, I sat with a Canadian and a British woman who were volunteering in Mwanza, Tanzania. Amidst great conversation, the Canadian tells me how she wants to adopt a African baby after being in the country for three months. 

Sure, three months is enough time to experience an epiphany, but when I asked her what made her so interested in specifically adopting an African, she tells me that she just loves black babies. 

After resisting the urge to blast her on the ignorant statement, I asked her whether she had considered adopting an African child in North America considering the many challenges that this population faces in adoption and later in a defunct foster care system. 

She paused, admitted at first that she hadn’t considered that there are many children there that need adopting and then said, “Ok, honestly, they have more chances.” 

So, in the end it really wasn’t about the love of Black babies, but the fixation with Africa and the desire to bring some part of it home with her. 

This fascination is the latest phenomenon that speaks again to white privilege, and I blame a few people for setting the wrong example. 

The one that immediately comes to mind is Madonna, the woman who has decided to adopt two children from Malawi and bring them to the West against the wishes of their families and without a thorough understanding of Malawi culture. 

Ok, so the privilege exists.  With that privilege comes a heavy responsibility to make use of it with critical thought for the benefit of the masses.  Africa has been pillaged for its diamonds, gold, silver, copper, rubber, coltan, steel, iron, trees, and people. 

Is this the newest form of colonial pillaging?  People call this a part of cross-cultural exchange.  How many European babies are you seeing being adopted by affluent Africans? 

How many Africans are given the opportunity to stroll through a Western country (first because of tight immigration laws keeping Africans out) and hand-pick some child to bring to the Motherland to save them from the corruption of the West. 

Let us be real about things.  We are not witnessing cross-cultural exchange, we are witnessing cultural theft.


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