In the beginning of our African Archeology class, we were asked to write down what Africa meant to us. While it was a rather open ended question, I still had difficulty answering it. Should I mention the origin of human evolution, the hot weather, or maybe even the troubling history of apartheid? While my mind flirted with all of these rather serious topics (especially the hot weather), I ultimately decided to write about New Year’s.
For as long as I can remember up until 2008, my family would meet every December 31st to celebrate New Year’s with certain family friends. However, this was never a standard New Year’s party. Wine was replaced with hot apple cider, and pounding dance music with calming classical choruses. The center piece of the celebrations though was always the slide show of this family’s travels in South Africa. The husband of this family grew up in what was then Rhodesia before moving to Cape town, and he with his wife and children would travel about once a year to see his extended family back in Africa. Yet the slide shows we saw were not filled with pictures of antique grandmothers or third cousins twice removed. Instead, what we saw every New Year’s was a collage of various game reserves visits this family went to during their down time in South Africa.
As a child, these slide shows were a marvel to look at. While things were boring in suburban New Jersey, Africa seemed like such an exciting place where one could see elephants, lions, and zebras. These images led to an association of Africa of a place filled with adventure and exoticism. I was the explorer, seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. Yet I wasn’t only the adventurer, but the scientist as well. Each slide was accompanied with a question to see if I was paying attention. For example, I would be asked “how many zebras do you see in this picture?” after a particular slide (one that probably contained zebras). Three, I would answer triumphantly, only to soon learn that there was a hidden fourth and fifth zebra whose only visible vestiges were a stray leg and a partially visible tail, camouflaged by the other animals. Like Batman trying to escape some demonic test by the Riddler, I felt like my very survival depended on answering these questions correctly. Succeed, and I would earn the respect of my family friends. Fail, and earn eternal damnation. These questions were not restricted to number games, but also identifying different animals from one another. While almost anyone can tell the difference between a lion and a tiger, give me a thumbs up if you can identify a springbuck from a waterbuck. Hint: it involves a white circle and a backside. No joke.
While I would not like to overemphasis these New Year’s parties in sculpting my vision of Africa, I still think these visits were important. To this day, I still associate Africa with the “new frontier,” a place of discovery and exploration. Additionally, I still have the tendency to put different animals into different categories as soon as I see them, such as predator or prey, whether on national geographic or in the street. This tendency, or perhaps fixation, to categorize Africa reminds me of what current New York University Professor Mary Louise Pratt describes as “The Project of Natural History.” She describes how various European writings during the 19th century of Africa used multiple different methods in codifying Africa as the “other.” One such method was to see Africa through a lens of ordered history. Every plant, animal, and person had to be put into their respective categories like toys into the proper bin. Only then could Europe expect to understand Africa. As Pratt writes in Scratches on the face of the Country, “Their [the explorer-writers] task was to incorporate a particular reality into a series of interlocking information orders-aesthetic, geographic, mineralogical… and so on (Pratt 125).” Just like these early explorers who artificially prescribed their own meaning onto Africa through categorizing different genera (I always try to whip that word out when I can) of plant life, I was in a way doing the same. Sure, I was a ten year old looking at animal slides on New Years, but perhaps subconsciously I was boxing in Africa as strictly a place where one could see wild animals. Through putting animals into different groups, I was better able to understand, and perhaps control, the “other” that was Africa.
I am not implying I did anything wrong as a ten year old looking at those slides. But it is important to note from where we have certain pre conceived notions about certain places, and realize they never paint the complete picture. It is fine to appreciate the rich wildlife that is home to Africa, but it is not fine to see it strictly as the continent with animals.
Roberson, Susan L., and Mary L. Pratt. Defining Travel: Diverse Visions. University of Mississippi, 2002. Print.