Identity crisis

Recently I have had experiences that have made me not only laugh, but to seriously consider who “Cheryl” really is.

When you take a journey like mine, you do so because you not only love the sense of adventure that moving to a new country and cultures brings; but also how you will grow and evolve in response to it.

August marks my 11th month of my  migration from Canada to living in Botswana and the Southern Africa region. It is amazing how time has flown by. I like to think that it has because I have adapted to my new life rather easily yet every day brings some new adventure, either large or small. And I rush head long into each and every one of them with far more enthusiasm than most people who I know. While I am always a willing participant in my adventures, I sometimes feel very sorry for those who have chosen to befriend me or sometimes are just unfortunate enough to be within my vicinity.

I am truly blessed because I have made such amazing friends here. In fact, not to gloat but I seem to have as my best friend Noelle puts it ” a horseshoe up my arse” at times. Throughout my life and nomadic tendencies to move frequently, I have always been able to establish wonderful friendships and support systems no matter where I end up. Here in Botswana has been no different. I have the most amazing network of friends that a person could possible want. What I give them in return seems to be a constant source of amusement. 

Sheila & I
Sheila & I during a dance date

A couple of weeks ago one of my dearest friends here, Sheila actually had the misfortune of riding in a combi with me. It might seem funny that we haven’t crossed this friendship mile stone before but with the amazing services of Buche and Tshepo who fearlessly deliver us to almost all of our social engagements we have never traveled any where together via combi. While a combi is ideal mode of transportation during the day time and when you are taking a fairly direct route, it is far safer and easier for us to travel by taxi when going out in the evenings.

Yet a couple of weeks ago we were unexpectedly together late afternoon and needing to get the bus rank…my favorite insane place in Gabs. So into a combi we got. Luckily it wasn’t jammed packed as yet and we were able to sit together on the very rear seat. For me it was nice for a change to have the company of someone I like sitting next to so I was happy to sit and chat during the journey. Not experiencing anything unusual I proceeded as normal…..forgetting that what is my normal is not necessarily Sheila’s.

As a bubbly friendly white woman living in a country where she is definitely a minority, I simply am so use to being stared at, laughed at or with & occasionally (okay not so occasionally) harassed that I no longer notice. While Sheila has experienced some of the unsolicited attention that I receive it has usually been in an evening setting where male attention to females is expected. What she had never really experienced is how I interact with the populous of Botswana on a daily level. It seems that it was an eye opening experience for her. Having people stare and listen to every word you speak was a new experience for her.

Upon exiting the combi at the bus rank we moved through the swirling throng of movement that is the bus rank in pursuit of our destination. While we were walking side by side, I was the continual object of considerable attention…some pleasant, some not. I simply did what I always do, take it in stride literally with mostly a smile on my face. But a defining moment came when a guy kept calling out “English” to me and once he had my attention asked me where I was going? I just smiled and kept walking.

Sheila, on the other hand, put her hand on my arm, stopped me and said (I quote) “I forget that you are white!” However the experience of riding in a combi with me and then walking through the crowd finally brought home the fact that yes, we are very different. I am happy to say that this experience didn’t jeopardize our friendship but in fact made it stronger. She now understands that being in my shoes takes lots of patience and good humor at times to navigate in the real life world of Gabs and Africa in general. A fact that I rarely think about.

To be honest with you, I am surprised that she is willing to continue to accompany me places! That is true friendship. But it was a good reminder for me that although I feel like I fit in very well here, I am truly different from just about everyone that I encounter. While you can learn new cultures and perspectives, race you can never change and because of that you will always be perceived by most according to your visible race which you wear on your skin. Only when you are truly lucky will you find people who see not your skin color but who you truly are.

As I explained to Sheila during our discussion later on that day about our experience, I came to Africa partly so that I was in the social position of being a minority in a race and culture completely different from my own. Living in Canada where multiculturalism is synonymous with saying you are a Canadian, it is important for me to never forget that there are many people throughout the world who have limited access to resources, livelihood and many other things based simply on their race. I never want to take that for granted, nor practice a prejudicial attitude that inflicts it on anyone else.

 

11 months into my experience I can happily say that I truly have experienced acceptance for who I am almost everywhere that I have ventured. Yet, I have learned incredibly valuable lessons about social, cultural and race issues that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Oddly enough my worst experiences here in Gabs have been with fellow Canadians.

And oh, by the way, my friend Sheila can’t wait to travel an even greater distance on public transportation with me….it seems she enjoys the challenges and hilarity that travelling with me always seems to bring.

Changing the perception of Africa one blog at a time

One of the many reasons that I committed to doing this blog was to not only keep my family and friends updated on my life and adventures in Africa but it was also to change people’s very outdated perceptions of this glorious continent.

Many of those who I spoke to about my journey were all under similar illusions that this is a war torn, poverty, drought-stricken land filled with people dying of famine. While this is a perception that has been true at time, it has been mainly conjured by the media, governments and even development projects such as I am involved with. There is entirely different prospective that people are not seeing and understanding. Africa is not the Third World continent that it was  and still is portrayed as in the Western World’s media.

And please note that it Africa is a continent….not just one country but 54! Granted this number changes on what seems like almost a monthly basis as new boundaries are defined by either war or democratic efforts. Yet, all of the 54 countries that currently make up the continent of Africa are still growing and developing systems and infrastructures equivalent to those found in the Western hemisphere. There are many schools of thought on how best that this development should take place. Some are strong proponents for the assistance provided through foreign aid; while others argue the success of African countries who have done it on their own without the complications and patronizing attitudes of the west. Many of the volunteers that I know agree with me that the current system of development aid simply doesn’t work or have the intended results. But that is an issue for another blog.

Back to the topic at hand, Africa is an amazing, beautiful continent filled with 54 countries that are so unique in landscape, culture and life. Please stop thinking about it as only a land of famine, poverty and war. Change your perspective, it is the best thing that you can do for those who are in more vulnerable situations. Use the internet to search and learn about the unique beauty of landscape and people that are just waiting for you to discover. The following post which I found on the on-line version of the Toronto Star features an article about Oxfam’s campaign to change perspectives as well.

http://thestar.blogs.com/worlddaily/2013/06/oxfam-ad-campaign-reimagines-africa-draws-some-criticism.html

Oxfam ad campaign ‘reimagines’ Africa, draws criticism

Oxfam2Africa is starvation, hunger and poverty. That’s how the vast majority of British residents answered when they were asked about how they view Africa in a survey commissioned by the influential charity Oxfam. So Oxfam figured it was time for the continent to be re-imagined, in a manner of speaking, and help locals in Britain see Africa through a different lens. To that end, Oxfam kicked off 2013 with a new ad campaign highlighting Africa’s beautiful scenery. The ads depict lovely waterfalls, fruit markets and lush landscapes. At the time, Oxfam’s then-chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, told BBC News, “We want to make sure people have a really better balanced picture of what’s happening in Africa. Of course we have to show what the reality is in the situations in those countries. But we also need to show the other places where things are actually changing, where things are different.” “Let’s Make Africa Famous for Its Epic Landscapes, Not Hunger,” one ads reads. Another: “Let’s Make Africa Famous for Its Food Markets. Not Its Food Shortages.” Oxfam1 Oxfam3Oxfam official Nick Futcher said in a phone interview from London that the campaign was meant to coincide with this month’s G8 meeting in the U.K. Oxfam, which has an annual marketing budget of $6 million, spent about $1.2 million on the campaign, Futcher said. Futcher said preliminary surveys of about 1,000 respondents suggest the campaign was a success. “The percentage of people who believe that the global poverty problem can be solved has gone up from 60 per cent in our survey to 75 per cent,” he said. The local press in the U.K. covered the unorthodox ad campaign, and reader reaction was mixed. “I think it’s a great campaign, but what I found a bit upsetting and annoying is that Oxfam is one of the organisations that has spent a great part of its history creating the very stereotype that it is now criticising,” said one reader on The Guardian’s website. “Fair enough they have changed their mind but I would like to see just a touch of humility and acceptance of responsibility on their part for the image that they had a hand in creating in the first place.” I read Oxfam’s Futcher that comment. “It would be hypocritical to say that we’ll never show people in need again, but I think this campaign really succeeded in convincing people to look at Africa differently,” Futcher said. “You have certain ads for certain jobs. I think you’d have to go pretty far back in Oxfam’s history to find images that show people without dignity or children in hopeless situations.” Nigeria-based journalist and Huffington Post contributor Tolu Ogunlesi has offered stronger criticism. “Am I alone in thinking Oxfam’s lamentations suggest a British public that is at the mercy of what they are fed. Helpless Brits who somehow cannot – despite all their efforts – rise beyond the bombardment of pity-evoking images of Africa. One might as well rephrase Dame Stocking as follows: ‘Oh poor helpless people of Britain, all they’re being fed is harrowing, unhelpful images of Africa. We need to stop that. We need to feed them something different. We need to change their diet.'” If Futcher could do the ad campaign again, he’d do things slightly differently. “What was missing for donors was, ‘what do I do next?'” he said.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead