Impressions of Africa

Ready for some candid impressions of Africa? 

I’m not. 

I am a firm believer in allowing impressions to change. I mean, first or second impressions can be very deceiving, especially once you take into account all of our biases and filters. I know there are some firmly fixed opinions out there about this vast and diverse continent. Could I inadvertently cement those opinions further with my overly simplistic observations? 

So I’m struggling to put into words how to share my impressions without stating the obvious. I am making these observations from the vantage point of a newly arrived, ignorant light-skinned female. And I’m definitely NOT saying, “Africa is like this…” 

So, you know, take this article as a starting point, not the end.

Before arriving to this amazingly foreign place, whenever I would share our news of moving, I got a lot of mixed reviews. 

“What an adventure!”

“You are so brave.” 

“Wow. That’s… far.” 

“Is it safe?” 

“How are you feeling?” {Looking for any sign that confirms how THEY feel.} 

Well, now that I’m here, let me start with the weather.

Where I’m living in Africa is very green and lush. It’s close to the equator which means there is little temperature variation. No freezing winters or blazing hot summers to endure. There are national parks everywhere and healthy tourism in those areas. We haven’t yet enjoyed a safari, but we are looking forward to that adventure soon.

For now, we’ve mostly observed what things are like in the capital city. It’s busy, it’s crowded, and it’s diverse in a variety of ways, except one. Yep, skin color. Granted, there are more ethnically diverse people in the city in comparison to smaller towns and villages, but in a day you may see 2-4 people who do not have dark black skin. It’s definitely the elephant in the room and people don’t even try to ignore it. 

Standing out as an unusual white person among black people feels very different at first. People stop and stare, which in the back of my mind I totally expect but as I’m being stared at with a blank expression, it’s just… uncomfortable. It’s hard to tell how you’re being sized up. Is the person thinking, “Whoa, what is a white person doing here?” Or, “Wow, that’s a white person, heh.” Or is it, “You don’t belong here”? 

I can’t tell. It’s just blank. 

Smiling will sometimes help people relax and you find them naturally smiling back. Seriously, I have always sworn by the power of a smile. No matter where I go, I really work my smile. But I guess for some people seeing a white person is just so unexpected that they don’t even process you’re smiling and they just keep staring at you. It’s weird, but we’re getting used to it.

Now, the people here are beautiful; long and lean with handsome and beautiful faces. Everyone generally wears western clothing, some of it shipped in from our second-hand stores. It’s especially hilarious to see someone wearing an American political T-shirt, perhaps not always knowing what it means. As far as traditional dress, those are only caught on rare, special occasions. 

Where we live, people tend to have large families. One of the most delightful sights for me is all of the children. Kids enjoy playing, with parents not too far away. A lot of the babies are carried on their mother’s back, secured with fabric and strong knots. I seriously need to learn how they do that. The babies look so safe and comfortable, they look like little floating heads. I’ve also seen a handful of moms using modern front-carriers or balancing a baby on a hip. 

Since walking is a main mode of transportation, a lot of items are, as to be expected, carried on the top of someone’s head. People will also strap items to their back or balance something heavy on a shoulder. Motorbikes are the next most popular way to get around and there have been some very interesting things balanced on those seats as well. One time I saw two people balancing a large headboard making it look like the driver was sitting on a really nice bed. As I watched the “reclined” driver maneuver and weave around cars, it took a minute for my mind to process the trippy image. Another time a very large pot covered up the rider on the back, giving the driver the appearance of four arms. 

Every trip around the city becomes a little game of, what new thing will we see balanced on a motorcycle?

The city itself reminds me of many other developing capital cities around the world where we’ve lived; rectangular, grey buildings and confusing traffic patterns. It’s hard to keep track of where we are with very little to distinguish one street from another. It’s been about two months now and I think I’m finally starting to recognize certain areas. Concrete or cinder block walls, with large solid metal gates line sections of the sidewalk or beaten path. Occasionally I can get a peek at what lies beyond the walls where sections have crumbled. I’ve usually seen a nice grouping of houses and yards. 

Store fronts of the average store are marked by the yard-sale style display of merchandise. Everything from shoe repair, wedding dresses, live chickens, produce, furniture and hair salons can be found somewhere along a given street. 

And on that note, it is interesting that while there are certainly nicer parts of the city, there is still a little bit of everything mixed in somewhere. Take our neighborhood for example. It contains a cluster of well-maintained enclosures hiding luxurious homes, tucked in among make-shift homes with cinderblock walls and corrugated metal roofing. The same spread of eclectic shops are found just down the first major street of our neighborhood. You can also find in any given part of the city or neighborhood a healthy sprinkling of free-range chickens, goats, and large-horned cows. They each kinda just make their way along the city streets, munching or pecking at the areas of grass found growing on open lots or small patches of dirt in between short buildings. 

So, yeah, this place is different, interesting, and a bit intimidating. It’s big, busy, and beautifully Black. But hey, I’m starting to see that there’s so much more to this place, and I’ll definitely be adding to my first impressions.

One comment

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! I say that I’m jealous–but I’m not really sure that’s true. I think I’m jealous of that experience for the age you are (not for mine now). Though I’d still love such an adventure, even if it was only for a few months–something long enough that you could get the feel of the culture etc.

    Enjoy! And I hope the kiddos adjust–that will be the hard part I bet!

    Best, Camille


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