Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Safety Issue

Most people, when they find out I'm going to Africa, respond as though I'm doing something that's both crazy and dangerous. And I'll admit that I had a few trepidations when I went to South and East Africa about a year and a half ago. After all, it is the Dark Continent...

So there I'd be in a place like Zambia, and people would notice my wedding band and ask me why my wife wasn't along, and I'd say, Because she thought it might be dangerous, and they'd give me a look of disbelief, point to the scene around them, and ask, What's dangerous about this???

And it was true. By and large, I felt perfectly safe throughout my journey, even though I drove all over South Africa by myself, even though I even entered poverty- and war-torn nations like Mozambique and Burundi. There were of course other issues that made my 'vacation' a little different than going down to Cancun for a week, but personal safety out amongst the civilian population was not one of them.

So why, besides the general paranoia that permeates our times and the general all purpose fear of the unknown that is a function of the human condition, do people freak out about the idea of going to Africa? I think there are two reasons.

The first is probably unstated. And that is, that they are afraid of being the only 'whitey' in a sea of hostile blacks. You know, the car breaking down in the 'Hood, and the night's falling, and the Crips are surrounding you, and...

The reality in Africa is that nothing could be further from the mark. Not only do Africans not hate white people, they actually like them. Really like them. They're curious, respectful, perhaps reserved, but almost always friendly. At the worst, white people are looked at the same as Chinese people or East Indian people, both of whom are relatively common there: as foreigners in the midst, but with absolutely no hostility.

I'll take it a step further. The African will see you as a superior person. By this I don't mean to imply a racial thing or to say that they're servile. It's just that you obviously have more money and freedom than they do, so they naturally assume that you've got something together that they don't. And this means that more curiousity and respect will be forthcoming.

And although you will be hassled some by touts, etc., at the few tourist areas there are (from what I've seen so far at least), the level of hassle is far less than you would find in most other Third World countries. And as you look around you, you will see them interacting with each other with the same sort of polite respect.

Anyway, the second reason people freak out about Africa is because of all those famines and genocides and people whacking off arms and stuff like that. So let me deal with that issue.

Yes, those things have happened. But it's also true that once they're over, things go back to normal pretty quickly. For instance, right now Uganda is completely stable and is Africa's shining success story. Sierra Leone is described by travelers as totally peaceful and laid back, almost like a Caribbean island. Rwanda is at genuine peace with Tutsis and Hutus working side by side.

How is this so? Here's my theory:

Far from being inherently violent, Africans are really gentle, non-confrontational people. In fact, their culture is so nonviolent that they don't know how to deal with it when it occurs. For those who 'cross over' to the violent side, they don't have any long developed psychological defense systems in place to deal with that frame of mind, so they go nuts. And their victims, for similar reasons, don't know how to defend themselves.

Then, when it's over, everybody goes back to how they were. And I know that this is perhaps hard to believe, but...

So in theory personal safety shouldn't be an issue for me in West Africa. And I know from reading the accounts of those who have already been there that safety hasn't been an issue for them.

Although I'll shortly find out for sure.

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