Why I love West Africa - minus Ebola

Everybody is talking about Ebola and that just reminded me of the things I love about West Africa and the misconceptions I had before I went there.

Everything is big in West Africa. Words, personalities, pride, egos, wallets and anything in between. I have heard this statement before; mostly from girls with naughty giggles and smiles plastered across their faces and with only one thing on their minds.

It wasn’t until I had been to West Africa that I truly understood what ‘big’ meant.

When my dad turned 37 I bought him socks with coins I had spent hours hunting for between the seats of his car every weekend. On the socks was written “Go big or Go home”. I had no clue what that meant, until now.

Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso is a city like many other cities. It is full of contrast. The big houses are BIG and the small ones are so delicate and transparent that you can tell that, just like their owners, they have lived, survived and keep on keeping on. It’s a city on the up and the evidence is on the number of high-rise buildings popping up all over town. It is a work in progress.

During my second day in West Africa I sat and watched a popular music show and realised that variety was the spice of life. In Southern Africa we have the SADC which has a number of talented musicians. Yet if you know who Oliver Mtukudzi is, and you are from a township, you are progressive. There, I found music from Togo, Benin, Ivory Coast and the variety appealed to me.

Then there was an older guy that I encountered, dressed in an ill-fitting, funny Elvis suit with short trouser legs above his knees, and cowboy boots. I was told that he was a part of a group called Espoir 2000 and very popular. He sang a song whose title translated to “Poverty is the cousin of death and if you have no money you are dead”.

I laughed! Of course, this is the stereotype I am comfortable with. Foreigners have money and they like splashing it. The next day was Good Friday and being Christian I know what it means but admit that to me it has always been like any other holiday. But here people visit each other, share beers, anything as long as you make an effort to meet as many people as you can and hope that yours stomach can take on all the food. 

It reminded me of Christmas when I was a kid and it felt wonderful. One of my friends said that we should go greet his neighbour and I asked why. “Well your neighbour is your first parent, if anything happens to me they will come here first, so it’s very important that we know each other well”. I knew what he was saying was true, but also realized that I didn’t even know my neighbours, names back home. In case of trouble, my first parent was my cell phone, and if anything happens I will call the police!  

I do not know which part of West Africa you may be familiar with or will see as it has many facets. But in Burkina, Ouaga opened up a new way of seeing West Africa for me; foreigners, the dark ones with bright clothes, the drug dealers, the smelly ones, the ones with 20 wives and voodoo tendencies.

I saw a warm Africa, a welcoming Africa where people of different religions lived together. I saw Muslims sitting side by side with Christians and as I visited during Easter it was so intriguing to witness how Muslim friends sat with their Christian friends and talked about whatever was on their minds. These are the people who have accepted their differences and yet choose to live next to each other.

I received more gifts from visiting people whom I had only met for the first time, than I have ever done from visiting relatives at home that I haven’t seen in years. The gifts ranged from pineapples, whole chickens, traditional cloth to bangles from a girl I just met and I felt welcomed. I was saddened to leave these people who had never made me feel like a foreigner.

Then I wondered what they know about South Africa? What they think about South Africa? Do they really think we want to butcher foreigners and send them home because they are thieves? Do they know we hunt them down at night and burn them simply because they are the reason we feel disenfranchised.

Do we hate them because they are too dark? Who wouldn’t be dark labouring in that blistering heat everyday? Do we call them foreigners because we think they do not know much about anything or is we who do not know? 

On my way back to SA, I sat on a plane to Ghana next to an elderly doctor who was so happy to know that I was from South Africa. Mandela came up, of course, and Robben Island, but the nice things he said to me about my country filled me with so much pride. 

I am not saying this with any sense of superiority, but the truth is that South Africa is for many Africans, what Hollywood is for many wanna-be movie stars.

West Africans know a lot about South Africa and other African countries. I sat with about seven boys in a college and they told me their biggest fear about stepping out is their limited English. It wasn’t that they were scared they wouldn’t make it in South Africa. Not knowing how to speak French made me feel a bit silly and yet everybody made an effort to speak to me in English.

Who are the true foreigners then? For me it’s not the person with a funny accent who sells cigarettes by the corner, nor the Congolese guy who parks your car in Longstreet, nor the guy who sells you airtime on your way to work, but rather the person who never makes any attempt to know what he/she does not know.  

The person who is dismissive of the unknown and hides behind the little he knows which is precious little in the case of many South Africans. That person is a foreigner to the human race and we might have the same green ID, speak the same language but you are a foreigner to me and I would like to say I shall not hide my green passport at airports because of you.

I will carry my passport with pride and tell whoever wants to listen what a nice country South Africa is. People died for this freedom we enjoy and not just to swim at exclusive beaches, eat at nice restaurants and work in air conditioned offices but also for freedom of thought.

If this rubs you the wrong way, you are the foreigner. I never want to see, meet or hear anything from you, so forever hold your peace or go buy a map, learn something, foreigner!