Along with overlap, I came to learn that cultures have contradictions that create complex problems for a society, ones that require more than one word answers or the signing of another legal bill.
Our first day, we were welcomed in the Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality in central Harare, where we met with Walter Mzemi, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Tourism. He greeted us warmly, as every Zimbabwean had, and appeared ecstatic to have American students visiting his beloved country. In the past, Zimbabwe wasn’t always open or receptive to visitors, and because of past turmoil, most of the world’s media has portrayed the nation in a way no longer, if ever, entirely true. If I am being honest, there may have been a tiny part of me curious as to just how safe Zimbabwe would be for me, but as the weeks went on, I realized how influenced I was by negative images of a country that in reality is nothing short of spectacular.
The minister talked to us about how Zimbabwe’s new philosophy was to “keep thy gates open”, because travel and tourism would not only bring money in to their economy, but also help to bring Zimbabwe to the world – showing others it is a nation of both peace and natural beauty.
After leaving his offices, it seemed as though we had already found the answers. How simple! Tourism will fix Africa. Only one day here, and we already figured it out, may as well go home now.
Of course, I had two whole weeks left in Zimbabwe to realize how the tourism industry had become a catch-22 for the country and the continent as a whole. In our trip, especially while in Zimbabwe, we visited quite a few staple tourist locations of southern Africa. From the tourist town and culture built around Victoria Falls to lavish resorts, safari trips and themed restaurants, we saw the typical images you see in travel magazines and brochures advertising the “African adventure of a lifetime”, where you could touch lions, see a few sunsets, eat exotic meats and then return back to your cushiony home in Britain or America or whichever “more privileged”, first-world country you were coming from. We juxtaposed these luxuries with local realities of the country – visits to schools, village tours and market excursions, all showing a much different landscape than your travel agent would have led you to. The differences between what we had seen on our glorious guided tours versus the littered streets of the cities and shantytowns were dissected heavily in our class discussions.
A common theme I noticed between the tourist attractions was the intention of creating an “authentic African experience” for visitors that in reality didn’t look at all like the actual authentic Africa you could find just down the street from your luxurious hotel. Hotel rooms were decorated in tribal masks and mosquito netting, but that didn’t resemble any of the décor we saw in actual Zimbabwean or South African homes. I began to feel an extreme sense of guilt as we enjoyed dinners at restaurants that capitalized on stereotyping traditional African cultures. It’s not to say that there isn’t historical basis for representations, as a few things we saw later on in the traditional Zulu villages (authentic and actual operating villages that follow traditional Zulu cultural laws and practices) reflected what was accentuated in these tourist attractions. However, I wonder how many patrons to these resorts, restaurants, programs and shops care to dissect the representations from contemporary realities. The tourism industry may be helping Zimbabwe’s economy grow, but could it be hurting its global representation?
I’m not saying that the “traditional African cultures” are inherently bad to show the world, because in some areas these traditions still exist and they are successful in their own rights. But for people who are only going to see this one side of Africa, and then make judgments about an entire continent based on “tribal” dancing and what many first-world citizens would consider a primitive culture, it will fuel a negative perception of southern African society. It will continue a cultural divide that prevents people from realizing just how “developed” (by American standards, at least), southern Africa really is. It eventually can translate in to racism, because the exposures some tourists may have only portray black Africans in this light.
If the economy is so in need of the tourism dollars, is it worth it to “sell out” your culture, so to speak? Is there a way to create attractions that portray a more authentic Africa that people will actually want to spend money on? These questions leave us with countless contradictions when we try to provide solutions to contemporary problems, not just in southern Africa, but globally as well.
I began to wonder where the balance falls. You want to be able to bring the world to Africa – bringing in that economic boost that the minister spoke to us about, but what if the only thing the world wants to see from Africa is antiquated stereotypes that are only going to further cultural divides and racism? The contradiction between the need for economic benefit and the push for proper cultural exposure perhaps can only begin to be solved through education. Maybe it is just a way for me to self-justify the enjoyment I got from the tourist attractions, or maybe I am just a conceited elitist American – but I do believe that my experiences at these locations were different than those of other tourists because I came in looking for misconceptions and had been educated by my professors to question the authenticities of representations. This is the kind of critical thinking and open-mindedness that I was not taught to embrace until college, and has led me to reflect on how close-minded some aspects of my K-12 education had groomed me to be.
I think a large part of this problem stems from fundamental educational deficiencies when it comes to teaching global citizenship to our students. Textbooks continue to try to define contemporary cultures in concrete terms, when by nature societies are built around diversity, subcultures and historical influence that construct something you can’t capture in a single image or glossary passage. These flat images are consistently reinforced through media exposure of other countries. A vibrant example is of the images of the Middle East on the news; it is rarely shown to us in a positive light, thus becoming the only way we perceive an entire region and group of people. For Africa, these images either consist of stark poverty, or “barbaric” (again, by most American standards) ritualistic behaviors among groups.
This is where I believe the art classroom can come in to play. Through cross-cultural studies of art – traditional, historical and contemporary practices, we can expose our students to the world with mediums that surpass a generalized image of the globe beyond our own country. Art and art history do not just teach technical skill and personal creativity – they teach students how to become higher critical thinkers and conscientious global citizens.
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