It’s time travel writers stopped stereotyping Africa

Africa, africaPop quiz: where was this photo taken?

OK, the title of this post kind of gives it away, but if I hadn’t written Africa, would you have guessed? It was taken in Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. This isn’t the view of Africa you generally get from the news or travel publications–a modern city with high rises and new cars. A city that could be pretty much anywhere. That image doesn’t sell.

And that’s the problem.

An editorial by Munir Daya for the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen recently criticized Western media coverage of Africa, saying it only concentrated on wars, AIDS, corruption, and poverty. Daya forgot to mention white people getting their land stolen. If black people get their land stolen, you won’t hear a peep from the New York Times or the Guardian. If rich white ranchers get their land stolen, well, that’s international news. And look how many more articles there are about the war in Somalia than the peace in Somaliland.

Daya was objecting to an in-flight magazine article about Dar es Salaam that gave only superficial coverage of what the city has to offer and was peppered with statements such as, “Dar es Salaam’s busy streets are bustling with goats, chickens, dust-shrouded safari cars, suit-clad office workers and traders in colourful traditional dress.”

Daya actually lives in the city and says you won’t find many goats and chickens on the streets. But that wouldn’t make good copy, would it?

Travel writing has an inherent bias in favor of the unfamiliar, the dangerous. Some travel writers emphasize the hazards of their journey in order to make themselves look cool, or focus on the traditional and leave out the modern. Lonely Planet Magazine last year did a feature on Mali and talked about the city of Bamako, saying, “Though it is the fastest-growing city in Africa, Bamako seems a sleepy sort of place, lost in a time warp.” On the opposite page was a photo of a street clogged with motorcycle traffic. If Bamako is in a sleepy time warp, where did the motorcycles come from?

I’m not just picking on Lonely Planet; this is a persistant and widespread problem in travel writing and journalism. Writers, and readers, are more interested in guns than concerts, slums rather than classrooms, and huts rather than skyscrapers. In most travel writing, the coverage is simply incomplete. In its worst extremes, it’s a form of racism. Africa’s problems need to be covered, but not to the exclusion of its successes.

As Daya says, “there is more to Africa than famine and genocide.” There are universities, scientific institutes, music, fine cuisine, economic development, and, yes, skyscrapers.

And if you think Dar es Salaam is the exception rather than the rule, check out Skyscrapercity.com’s gallery of African skyscrapers.

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Stonehenge, Machu Picchu top ‘most threatened’ wonders list

U.K. travel magazine Wanderlust has released their second annual list of the world’s most threatened wonders, with eight very popular attractions earning this dubious distinction for 2010.

Perhaps the two most eye catching destinations on the list are Stone Henge in the U.K. and Machu Picchu in Peru. The magazine actually describes Stonehenge as a “national disgrace” and rips the stone monument for being so detached from the rest of the ancient ruins in the area that loses some of the historical context. In the case of Machu Picchu, it seems the lost city of the Inca is a victim of its own popularity, with large crowds and over zealous tourists blamed for the sad state of affairs there.

The other destinations to make this year’s list include Wadi Rum, Jordan; Yangshuo, China; Tulum, Mexico; Jaisalmer, India; Timbuktu, Mali and the Bay of Fires, Tasmania. Each has their own unique issues to deal with ranging from too much tourist traffic, a lack of security and governmental struggles over access to the places.

Fortunately, Wanderlust doesn’t just point fingers, but also suggests some ways to solve the issues facing these popular attractions. For example, in the case of Stone Henge, they endorse a plan that has been put fourth to build an underground tunnel that wold link the stone monoliths to other nearby sites that are part of the same ancient compound. And as for Machu Picchu, they put the onus on the tour operators to ensure that their groups tread lightly and leave little trace of their passing on the fragile mountain environment and the centuries old citadel itself.

This list does a good job of drawing attention to the fact that many of these locations are suffering from being too popular. Perhaps good discussions about these issues will help make us all more aware of the problems and help preserve these sites for future travelers to enjoy as well.%Gallery-64352%

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Preserving the literary treasures of Timbuktu

Mali has been getting a bad rap lately with the kidnapping of a French aid worker and travel warnings about the dangers of terrorism, all thanks to Al-Qaeda’s local band of nutcases. But like everywhere else there are more good people than bad in Mali and they’ve been working hard to preserve a unique literary heritage in the famous city of Timbuktu.

Timbuktu is often thought of as a remote place, but it stands at an important point for the trade routes between West and North Africa. In the Middle Ages it was the center of a powerful empire and home to one of the first universities in the world. Students from all over the Muslim world came hear to learn about science, mathematics, geography, religion, philosophy, and more. Today the leading families of Timbuktu preserve the legacy of that golden age of learning–more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as far as the 12th century. They cover a wide range of topics. The one pictured here is a treatise on astronomy.

Now these manuscripts will be available to the public thanks to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-of-the-art library built to preserve the crumbling documents and display them to the public. Several exhibitions are planned that will add historical context to one of the world’s more popular adventure destinations. The collection of manuscripts will be a lengthy process. Nobody knows just how many families in Timbuktu and other part of Mali have treasures squirreled away, so the institute should be seeing a lot of growth and changes in the coming years.

An interesting video about the project can be seen here.

Gunmen kidnap another Westerner in Mali

Just days after the UK issued a heightened travel alert for Mali, gunmen have kidnapped a French national in the North African country.

Pierre Kamatte, a 61 year-old malaria researcher, was working in the northeastern town of Menaka when he was kidnapped outside his hotel on Wednesday.

There has been no official confirmation, but both the French and Malian governments suspect Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, shown here in an image taken from one of their propaganda videos. This organization claims ties to Al-Qaeda and operates across several countries in North Africa. It has conducted numerous kidnappings of foreigners and locals in the past few years and killed a British national earlier in the year.

Mali is home to the popular adventure destination of Timbuktu and music festivals such as the Festival in the Desert and stands to lose much-needed hard currency if foreigners stay away. It looks like now the hard currency will come in the form of military aid from the United States, which has pledged millions of dollars in equipment to help Mali fight the terrorists.