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’s gallery of African skyscrapers.


Gastro-diplomacy and the politics of food

Food has been a trending topic in travel circles for some time now. But though a good meal can tell a traveler much about the local culture, it’s not often that food is thought of as a force for political change at home. Yet, in a recent article for the Jakarta Globe, writer Paul Rockower makes just such a claim, part of a growing school of thought called Gastro-diplomacy.

Increasingly Asian nations, including South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, are turning to their national cuisines as a way to promote their country’s brands abroad, gaining increased attention and burnishing their image among the international community.

As the argument goes, people are more likely to relate to other cultures in terms of its cuisine, resulting in economic and political gains. In many ways, the effort seems to be working – the Thai government’s “Global Thai” campaign, which successfully helped open thousands of new Thai food restaurants in the U.S. alone, is seen as a model for other nations now following similar strategies.

So does a bowl of noodles create new paths to cultural understanding? At first-glance, Gastro-diplomacy does make a simplistic linkage between food and genuine cultural understanding. After all, food can just as easily become a stereotype (rice in Asia, tacos in Latin America) as it can be used to deepen cultural knowledge. But there are some signs that gastro-diplomacy has had success – Sushi, anyone? In the years ahead, look for politicians to not just try to win hearts and minds, but also stomachs.

[Via @EatingAsia]

[Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt]

Just how do Californians perceive their fellow Americans?

Discussing how Americans are viewed abroad is a popular travel topic. But what about how Americans are viewed by their fellow compatriots? This map gives us the Californian view regarding the rest of the US. Reminds me of the Absolut Vodka map controversy

Living in the Northwest, I am going to have to agree with the “coffee” statement. But some might find the map offensive because of the clear stereotypes; then again generalizing does provide for a fair amount of humor.

Know of any other humorous maps like the one above?

Londoner fired for telling it like it is

There’s been a surprising amount of press over the news that woman who recorded the announcements you hear on the London Underground has been fired for posting spoof messages on her website. The voice-over artist, 36-year-old Emma Clarke, has all of a sudden gained worldwide notoriety, with her website brought down by the sheer amount of traffic from people wanting to download the hilarious spoofs.

You can still find some recordings here. Here are some excerpts:

  • “We would like to remind our American tourist friends that you are almost certainly talking too loudly.”
  • “Would the passenger in the red shirt pretending to read the paper but who is actually staring at that woman’s chest please stop. You are not fooling anyone, you filthy pervert.”
  • “Would passengers filling in answers on their Sudokus please accept that they are just crosswords for the unimaginative and are not in any way more impressive just because they contain numbers.

As if to reaffirm her funny take on London stereotypes, the transport administration was too staid to keep her on. Well, ok their statement was surprisingly amusing: “London Underground is sorry to have to announce that further contracts for Miss Clarke are experiencing severe delays,” a spokesman said.

Hollywood’s Craziest Foreign Country Stereotypes

Stereotyping is the language of hate, ignorance, and comedy.

Unfortunately, growing up in America, I had very little international exposure and my early impression of the outside world was sadly constructed of Hollywood stereotypes. It wasn’t until I finally left the country in my early 20s that I realized that most Swedes don’t look like the Swedish Bikini Team and that Australians don’t regularly throw a shrimp on the barbie.

Perpetuating stereotypes is always good for an easy laugh in Hollywood, but far too many Americans simply buy into the stereotype and consider it reality (and are therefore rather disappointed when they finally visit Sweden).

So what are the worst stereotypes my fellow Americans have grown up believing?

The following is a YouTube collection of perhaps the most iconic. Having now been to nearly every country lambasted below, I can confirm that none of them lived up to their Hollywood portrayal. Except, perhaps, the Canadians (I’m joking, folks!).

Sweden: Swedish Bikini Team

Canada: Bob and Doug McKenzie

Australia: Crocodile Dundee

China: Long Duc

Kazakhstan: Borat

England: Austin Powers

Slovakia: Two Wild and Crazy Guys

France #1: Frenchmen from The Holy Grail

France #2: Inspector Clouseau

Russia: Ivan Drago

India #1: Peter Sellers, The Party

India #2: Apu