Visiting a Village

Visiting a Village

Is not what you think.

Throughout the entire continent of Africa, there are so-called “traditional villages” that will welcome the visitor… for a fee.

In truth there very few traditional African societies left on the continent. In the southeast Sudan, in western Ethiopia, in the densest jungles of central Africa, on the border of Namibia and Angola, and in the more remote areas of the NCA and Serengeti, there are a few traditional societies although not even these are without modern conveniences like cell phones. This is a tiny, tiny fraction of the colorful and fascinating contemporary societies which visitors will experience on any trip into the African bush, and I am continually amazed that visitors to Africa expect to see instead the 1954 Encyclopedia Britannica Maasai boma.

It has been at least 30 years, and in most places much longer, since there were truly traditional societies available for the majority of tourists to experience.

In part this expectation is the result of many local operators promoting this fantasy. And that’s understandable. At an average of $20 a pop, a so-called traditional village can earn a rather nicely sum of money. And my experience has been that this money is often well used, and I praise Ngei every time I realize when one of my clients hands over a $20 bill to a “village” African, that they are not handing it to a local politician.

So what are these so-called “villages?”

I suppose the best way to describe them is as “Living History Sites.” We have a great living history site near my home near the Mississippi River: the Apple River Fort. This is where Chief Blackhawk attacked white settlers in 1832. Everyday (well that is, every day until Blagojevich raped the state history site budget) local enthusiasts would dress up in early settler clothing, churn butter, harvest chickens and talk to visitors about the imminent Indian attack. That’s what a visitor to Africa will see, today.

I remember recently accompanying under duress a group of my clients to a village in Samburu. I noticed immediately that the “villagers” were the waiters at our camp, having discarded their Chinese style silk light green waiter blouses and neat wrinkle-free nylon pants for some Maasai blankets and auto tire sandals. And, remarkably, they were even painted up in traditional ways. They had to have acted with incredible speed, because we had just finished breakfast. Anyway, I winked at the guide, who winked back.

We proceeded through the guided conversation of how the chief had 460 wives and 5,902 children, and let everyone go into a smoky little hut to see how wonderful it was to sleep next to a baby goat, and then finally it was ending as we approached the “blacksmith”. That struck me as rather interesting, since what I remembered was that the Samburu tribe actually didn’t have blacksmiths, but used the neighboring Boran tribe to forge their spears. Anyway, we watched this poor kid trying desperately to start a fire rubbing two twigs, together. He looked up at me and said woefully, “Zamani, Mzee, tuna kibiriti!” Roughly translated, “A long time ago, Mzee, we used matches!”

Anyway, everyone had a very good time and got very good pictures.

What is actually much more interesting is where these societies are right now. How that resourceful kid who handed me my perfectly cut melon then raced back to play act what he thought his ancestors used to do, helping his town earn a bit more money. Even more interesting, how agrarian societies are coping with an impending desert and climate change, how important and vital education is to every single one of them, the effects of brain drain, the breakdown of tribalism, the capacity for language manipulation and understanding that only these multi-multi-language societies are capable of achieving.

“Sheng” is an entirely new language being spoken by practically everyone under 25 in East Africa. Even the advertisements in the newspapers that are directed to young people are often written in Sheng. “Fanagalo” is another entirely new language spoken by the miners in South Africa. These new ways of communicating between multiple tribes with their own entirely different languages reflect the many amalgams of social life ways occurring in Africa, and it is truly astounding! The speed at which Africa emerged from a traditional way of life into the modern world has thrust peoples who were as different as Yoda and Romeo into the same tiny room, and in the blink of an eye, they’ve got to figure out ways not only of talking to one another, but of living and working together. That’s why there have been some rough times, like during elections. But as with Sheng and Fanagalo there are just as many if not more fascinating everyday aspects to these colorful societies in transition to modernity.

So enjoy the Living History Site, but don’t presume it’s more than that. And don’t ignore the really fascinating and exciting aspects to the true, contemporary cultures you are guaranteed to see.