Africa is huge. Fifty-three countries in a giant continent. Hundreds of languages and dialects, and so many tribes within those countries. Iconic images of children, animals, and landscapes, recognizable the world over. Discouraging statistics, endless genocides, and reports of pirates dominate outside perceptions of life in Africa.
So what is “the real Africa”? Is it the mud huts and fly-eyed children? Is it puttering tuk-tuks on narrow streets and bartering vendors selling beaded wares? Is it overcrowded ferry boats, or wildlife safaris? Is it cities or villages? Or is the act of delegating only a portion of Something as the “Real” Something just as ridiculous to say as when McCain-Palin uttered the same gaff regarding America?
After four days of navigating Mombasa, we had kept to the main island part of the city, which is the major center and bulk of Mombasa. We went across the northern bridge just once to see the open-air market (largest in East Africa) near Nyali district, but that still had a very ‘city’ feel to it.
Finally we came to Likoni, the area to the south of the city, across the river, where four out of five of us are now living and working. Our first experience of Likoni quickly showed us a new side of daily life in Africa. The one road is dirt and full of giant puddles, lined with stalls (ie. storefronts and food vendors) made of scrap wood and metal, litter is strewn pretty much everywhere, and goats and cows wander about, munching on the sometimes-burning trash and shrubs interchangeably. This is my neighborhood. To be fair, this main heavy-traffic road through Likoni is much more drastic than the side roads and residential areas just off of it. But the poverty and lack of infrastructure here is immediately and abruptly obvious, and maybe that is what caused one of the other interns to say, with some relish, that this felt more like the real Africa.
When I heard that, I immediately felt odd about it. What makes this more real? Perhaps “real” is the wrong word – perhaps “reality” is more apt – all parts of Africa are real, but the reality of the challenges that Kenyans face is simply more clear outside of the city bustle. While plenty of people do live within the city of Mombasa, most people who work in the city commute in, and live in the poorer areas outside the city. And also, the overwhelming majority of Africans live in rural, impoverished areas. Areas like Likoni where the road has become a canal a foot deep, and the girl down the street dies of cholera. But even in Likoni, one of the poorest areas of Mombasa, I live with an educated family that has done well for itself and enjoys a nice life.
It is here where you learn about the library that was built under the ego of one Cabinet member, only to sit bookless now after the election brought someone else into power. It is here where you learn that skinny, lean people don’t receive as much respect as larger, rounder people (because they must not have enough to eat). It is here where babies cry at the sight of your face, as you are the first white one they have seen.
But then again, it is in the city where you have a lively discussion with the older female owner of your hotel (who owns many properties in the city and is married to a white man) about how she is ready and eager for change in the woman’s role in Africa. “Learn how to cook!” she yells at her (male) manager, only half-chidingly. She says Africa is ready for change, and woman are already making their way there. He stoutly refuses to budge on his view that women are meant to cook and clean, and that Africa cannot change because African humans are fundamentally different from American humans, and should not be the same. I didn’t bait him too much, hopeful with the knowledge that the aging of a single generation can elicit much of this impossible-sounding change.
Like everywhere in the world, the interplay of city and rural life is just a part of life – it’s the tug and war of progressive and conservative views, of import and export, of grow it vs. buy it, of cultural clashes and mixing, that has played a fundamental role in the development of civilization and the furthering of progress throughout human history. The existence of both together is as Real as it gets.