Travel Blogger, White Saviour? I Don’t Think So

All over Zambia, people are freaking out because a British blondie has chosen to portray herself as an unwitting victim of the Congolese War of the ’90s. As the Guardian explains:

Despite being in Zambia, she writes about becoming a “central character” in the Congolese war of the late 1990s — terrified of what the rebels from across the border “would do to the ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair’”.
She goes on to rattle through the dictionary of “white saviour in Africa” cliches: from 12-inch long spiders, “brutal tales of rape and murder”, “close encounters with lions” and helping a “smiling gap-toothed child with HIV”.
The response on social media was immediate. One tweeter known as Mr Aye Dee, said that Linton’s piece had “echoes” of Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden — except of course that in 1899 people couldn’t tweet Kipling to complain about his imperialist overtones.

Well, that’s one way to hasten one’s desire to delete their Twitter account and put into jeopardy any dreams of the career one might’ve had if they’d not made up complete bullshit in an attempt to sucker people in.

I mean, it’s not like folks can copy, paste, and fact-check things on the internet, or anything.

She of the “angel hair” and controversy, Ms. Louise Linton, from The Telegraph.

This is such a ludicrous story that I don’t even know from what direction I should come at it. Do we start with how on Earth a noted paper like The Telegraph didn’t even vet a story about such easily-checked accounts like “I was a central character in a war that ripped apart a country… except I wasn’t even in that country”? Or how about how the bar on journalism is running so low that fact-checkers now don’t even have peripheral knowledge of places like Africa, where some 18% of the planet lives? Like, say, how Zambia is one of the continent’s most stable countries, where there are no monsoons, let alone the “12-inch rain spiders” alleged to be spotted by the Most-Unlucky White Girl Ever?

Or how does a writer think “Hey, I know, I’ll just exaggerate a little, no one will notice” to the extent of creating new horizons for a conflict that is extensively recorded in modern journalism? Granted, it’s considered “the war nobody knows about,” because, well, let’s face it, in White Western eyes, it’s expected that Africans will kill each other because they always have, right? Not like white Europe, of course, whose current period of peace — 70 years for those playing at home — is the longest they’ve enjoyed since the fall of the Roman Empire.

(Psst, the Congo’s Second War was one of the ten deadliest wars in human history. Maybe it’s time to read a bit about it.)

Ahh… Africa, “the Dark Continent,” we have long called it, and not just for its inhabitants’ skin colour.

So, sure, if you’re a whitey with a book to write and you want to pick a place lazy editors sniffing a great “story” likely won’t fact-check, Africa’s a great place to start, because there’s no place on Earth we’re more inclined to believe a white girl with “angel hair” will find herself in trouble. Those heathen savages love peroxide blondes, amirite?!

Thank goodness Africans are unconnected and uneducated! Oh, whoops. Sorry, guys. In Zambia alone, more than 70% of the country has cellphones. That’s nearly 11 of 14.5 million Zambians who are connected to the world 24/7. Think they’re on Twitter, too? Considering how quickly Ms. Linton’s Twitter account got erased, you bet your ass they are.

The fine art of reverse ignorance

I’d like to pretend this story is exceptional, and confined to Africa, but it happens in “Anything But White” countries around the world. It’s just more Western, white arrogance at play and Linton ain’t the only one guilty of it. From way back in Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, as mentioned above, to the charity Band Aid’s smash hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas” from my teen years, we’ve excelled at being arrogant and superior to Africans.

Spoiler: Yes, they knew it was Christmas. The money was nice, though. Next time, a little less condescension, and a little more action, maybe, to paraphrase Elvis, okay?

I loved that song when I was a teen, but I cringe in offense when I hear it today. Of course they knew it was Christmas. Did you know Christianity in Ethiopia, where Live Aid’s famine-relief sought to help, has existed since the first century? Do they know it’s Christmas? For crying out loud, they probably helped celebrate the first one. Oh, and the Egyptians invented the calendar, and, yep, it’s still a country in Africa. But I guess famine makes one incapable of reading a calendar. Those poor hungry, bleary-eyed, dehydrated Ethiopians likely thought it was March, right? A snappy B-side single and a few million dollars was just what their grasp of calendars needed, I’m sure.

And while we’re talking about what Africans “know,” let me pop quiz you. Where was the earliest university founded? Guess what? The birthplace of higher learning is Fez, Morocco. No, really.

Personally, as a Canadian, I’m used to people being remarkably ignorant about my country. Apparently we all keep beavers as pets, know what it’s like to sleep in an igloo, and freeze to death for six months of the year. I’m a Vancouverite, from Western Canada, and I’ve never seen an igloo, have only seen beavers in parks, get mistaken for a Bostonian with my accent, and haven’t seen more than a literal dusting of snow since the Spring of ’09.

So, if I deal with the kind of ignorance I do, and it makes my head nigh explode such as it does, I cannot fathom the angst and frustration felt by your average African on a daily basis as they read stories of their continent in the news.

Oh, there’s another reminder for you: Africa is a continent, not a country, and it has 54 nations, more than a quarter of the world’s sovereign states. It’s the second-largest continent, and holds the most people after Asia, so while there are a ton of unsafe countries in Africa, there are peaceful, idyllic countries too.

Like Zambia, where the ill-fated Ms. Linton chose to invent her struggles.

Like most idiot writers who indulge inaccuracy and take liberties with foreign destinations, she fails to grasp that poverty does not equal ignorance, that invisibility on the world’s diplomatic stage does not equal global disconnect.

They hear us. They see us. They feel indignation, and rightly so.

We nomads, chroniclers of places and times we are blessed to experience often in ways the average vacationer never will, have an obligation to share with the world just how magically enchanting and different and complex these places are. To abuse that under the guise of “it sounds better” isn’t just offensive, it does real harm to the chance that others might visit, and every single dollar these places receives is a dollar they need. Seriously. Tourism can make the difference between starving and thriving for these countries. No natural resources are needed for tourism, no production, nothing. We show up, they make money, and nothing can benefit them faster with less cost than our tourist dollar.

It’s not them, it’s us

Africa may be a continent that has struggled to modernize and feed its people, but much of that is in large part thanks to us, the white folk. Imperialism is the worst thing that ever happened to Africa, and it’s our fault.

When people hear the word “genocide,” they think of times like the Holocaust, but Adam Hochschild, co-founder of Mother Jones Magazine, wrote King Leopold’s Ghost, an incredible historical account, in which he ascertains that the Belgian Congo under King Leopold was home to the first-ever genocide. A 1919 post-Leopold Belgian commission speculated that half of the Congo population was slaughtered during the rubber trade in just 23 years, between 1885 and 1908. What’s half amount to? 10 million dead. It became the first-ever world-wide human rights movement, thanks to the advent of photography allowing people abroad to see atrocities in newspapers. They saw evidence those rubber merchants who “inspired” harder work from the Congolese “savages” by spiking their severed heads on stakes as lavish garden décor, and world-wide outcry began the slow extrication of the imperialist invaders in Africa.

Millions died in the Congo alone, never mind the rest of the continent, which was ravished for slavery, exotic beasts, and highly sought-after foodstuffs, since Europe had a thing about killing folks for tasty things. (Read the non-fiction book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg for a look at how bloody the Spice Wars became. Because nutmeg. Africa had plenty of its own tasty spices too.)

Throughout all of Africa, white nations went in and took the continent over. Not because they were smarter or better. The only reason the could take Africa was because of the gun. That’s it. They had warfare, Africans had spears and stones. Look at the Colonial Map of Africa from 1914. Two independent nation-states out of what are 54 today: Liberia and Ethiopia. Everyone else fell to colonial powers.

Good job, white people. Africa’s foreign overlords circa 1914.

The gift of chaos

All of those countries had power structures existing at the time of invasion. They all had tribal warfare, royal lineages dating back millennia, and social systems we can’t begin to fathom. Yet whites walked in, cracked a whip, forced them to be subservient, and then, one day in the 20th century, they realized it was a little uncouth, thanks to King Leopold’s overzealousness giving them all a bad name, so they packed their shit up, left, and didn’t bother to leave any sort of structure in place to ensure these abandoned colonies didn’t fall into complete chaos.

So that went well.

The result is the madness we saw in places like Zaire, the repeat wars in the Congo, the craziness today in Nigeria, and so much more. Somalia, Rwanda, you name it, they all can be traced back to disruption of colonialism, if you work hard enough. The corruption, the infighting, the greed, the bullying — it’s all because of us walking away and not being bothered to help it ever since.

And so, when asshats like Ms. Linton decide the continent of Africa is a storybook of their choosing, it’s not just disrespectful to the struggles they face today or their rich, complex history, it’s also complicit in furthering the White Myth of superiority to Africans.

Look at indigenous peoples from around the world, from Maori through to North American Natives, all who suffer alcoholism and diabetes and poverty at rates that should horrify their fellow countrymen, thanks to never adapting to the foods, booze, and lifestyle inflicted upon them by us. These are all peoples, including the Africans, who were meddled with by our white ancestors, who had no business exerting their superiority.

Yeah, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness inspired Apocalypse Now, but it was itself inspired by his travels in Africa’s Congo during the Rubber Age under Leopold.

Turning the page on colonialism

I don’t know how we remedy all this. That’s a tall order, man. There’s been so much harm done, and there’s so much healing to happen, that sometimes I wonder if it’s even surmountable.

But I know one thing.

We travel writers have an opportunity of saying, “Hey, look at these beautiful people I met. Look at their kindness. Appreciate their culture, study their art, learn their writings, know their history, celebrate their differences, and visit their land.”

We can do that. We must do that.

Sure, I’m just some chick with a blog and a way with words, but I’m also someone who understands beauty and diversity. I understand why it matters, and what’s more, I have a very rare privilege of experiencing foreign places first-hand. I can share my experience of them with no corporate interference. I’ve got no governments distilling my message, no editor looking at the advertising bottom line. It’s me, my passion, my worldview. I can tell you why it’s beautiful to me. I can explain that I’ve spent a lifetime in love with the simple, beautiful stories of African nationals who overcome adversity, who shine like a light even now, despite living through one of the darkest histories of humankind.

There ain’t much in my power, but truth and observation are two things wholly under my purview, and this is true of any travel blogger.

We who travel and explore, who pass the word on, we can do much to share the struggles and promise, the beauty and horror, of these far-flung lands.

When folks like Ms. Linton and so many other travel bloggers don’t think their true experiences are “literary enough,” they do a massive disservice both to these places and also to those of us able to appreciate beauty in simpler terms — and these frauds deserve every bit of shame, humiliation, and repudiation heaped upon them.

We live in the internet age, and when one is arrogant enough to think they’re more inventive than the interwebs are observant, well, it’s fitting they get every bit of karma that comes home to roost.

Somewhere in Britain, Ms. Linton’s narcissistic delusion of being on the cusp of fame and acclaim as her book’s except drew near has since turned to a sour horror that she, and she alone, is responsible for the demise of every dream she ever nurtured about words on a page.

And to that, I raise my wine glass in salute of all things being exactly as they should be.

As for me, I think some researching about travel opportunities in Zambia might be in order. I hear its people have spunk, attitude, and resilience. I like that.

Elephants enjoying the pond. From http://safarisun.co.uk/.

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Sunset on Zambia, from Birdietours.com. A scene I’ll see myself, soon enough, if luck plays a hand.
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