I have a surprise announcement. I will be returning to Africa next week. Back to Mali? No. Mali has incredible people and otherworldly music, but there is nothing else I can conquer there. I already went to Timbuktu and I’ve climbed the Hand of Fatima like 14 times. On this trip I will be going to Mt. Kilimanjaro. It is one of the few things, along with going on safari, that actually make Africa worth visiting. I won’t just be climbing Kilimanjaro, though.
I plan on skydiving to the summit. Kili is pretty high up. Like 20,000 feet. I may actually have to jump from space. During the descent, I will be bench-pressing a lion. When I land on the summit I will ride said lion to the base before climbing back up unassisted. I will do my best not to contract AIDS or malaria in the process. Afterwards I will visit some tribes and watch them dance and play drums before I fly home. Did I mention this is happening on the dark continent? Then I will write a blog post about it that will more or less amount to my ego taking a shit all over you. I will later write a book that will do the same thing.
Most travel writing about Africa is not so obnoxious. It’s more subtle. But the effect can be similar. There are a lot of ego-driven accounts that treat Africa as a trophy, the final travel frontier, a place where life is uniformly difficult – the traveler is miserable and so are the people. With a backdrop of malaria, famine, civil conflict, and AIDS, such a report is easy to formulate. Embellishment and pure fabrication can be employed if the story is not dramatic enough.
In a misguided attempt to entertain my readers, this blog was once narrowly focused on my bowel movements. Sensitive to the fact that I had an audience, I tried to hold their attention by sharing the most outrageous things that happened to me. But I also should have been sensitive to the fact that I was informing a group of people about West Africa, a part of the world that is subject to some of the most deficient and one-dimensional news coverage.
With encouragement from others, I changed my approach. I started writing more about everyday life, about jokes and music and language. This didn’t make my blog forced or less authentic. If anything, it was forced when I was writing solely about my trials and tribulations. I expected my readership to decline along with the shock value. It didn’t. In fact, it grew. This blog has five times as many visitors as it did a year ago, yet I do less and less to promote it. I still write narratives and I still talk about the difficult aspects of travel in West Africa, but those reports are tempered by experiences of joy, discovery, and normalcy.
Everyone travels differently and that’s how it should be. This is not about how you travel. It’s about how you report it. There are no obligations in the realm of narrative travel writing, but know this: it’s possible to write about travel in Africa without it coming across merely as conquest of a difficult place. You may actually find that your readers appreciate a revelation about Africa moreso than a confirmation of their beliefs, which are, in the case of Africa, often doubts more than anything else.
Notes: I have no problem with people that go to Africa only for safari or Kilimanjaro. I just don’t like it when they think that’s all there is to the continent. It’s possible to do those things and acknowledge that there is still so much more (see this post from Audrey and Daniel or this one from Tyler). Also, I have never climbed the Hand of Fatima.
Up next: my actual travel plans..