We’re always ready to travel far to get satisfaction. God knows we’re prepared to get hot and sweaty. So when, after months of romanticizing and exoticizing, our dreams finally take off, there is only one thought on our mind: Oh Africa, I’m coming!
The experience of the Afrigasm is limited to a particular group. We tend to be white Euro-Americans and are drawn to Sub Saharan Africa by an urge to explore and to do good, or by a more existential desire for an encounter with radical difference. We come as tourists, interns, entrepreneurs, volunteers and exchange students. Quite a few of us engage in sustainable development projects, while others’ efforts are more short-term in nature or draw some criticism here and there (think Invisible Children). What we all share, however (and this is crucial to get an Afrigasm), is an “Africa Sweet Spot,” which we express in This is Africa-themed stories that keep the home-front updated about our African adventures. We used to write endless emails about these experiences, but now we post them on our blogs and successive FB posts. ‘This is Africa’ or TIA, connotes the exotic and romantic randomness that we Western visitors attach to Africa. TIA sentiments are the foreplay of our Afrigasms, and they overwhelm us every time we witness ‘the hopeless continent’ in action.

Afrigasms feel as good as they do because they confirm the way media (and our own local mythologies, passed around by and down from friends and family) taught us to view the continent: Mostly a place of hunger, disease, helplessness and struggle. They consolidate the position of the African other. This African other is slow, late, poor, powerless, dresses funny, drips exotic, and speaks with the television African accent. He or she always has time to chat. No rush. We admire his courage to live by the day, we adore her children and can’t get enough of the amazing stories he has to tell: everything from tragic sob-stories to courageous struggle narratives. We respond open-mouthed with “Oh my God, so you were beaten up by the apartheid police”? Afrigasm! Even when we’re hungrily waiting for our (super cheap!) sushi and cocktail plate (should we add ‘in Cape Town’ here?), only to find out the waiter mixed up the Mohito with a ToffeeBerry Martini, we shake our heads, smile, think TIA and whoop! … Exactly.

Don’t be mistaken, we are aware of our stately mix of white guilt and our distaste for  our colonial capitalist ancestors; Eish, they were arrogant! But today, we have the chance to make up for it. Or at least a little bit. Driven by a remix of the White Man’s Burden, thousands of us are currently pursuing Afrigasms. Africa’s landscape, chaos, slowness, ever-so-friendly but powerless people, and last but not least, Africa’s endearing children offer us an emotionally fulfilling experience which is unique in its gratifying potential. That’s how these same children – with or without consent – often end up in picture frames in Eindhoven, Hannover or Tennessee.

Though many consider Cape Town too developed to be a part of Africa and prefer to detach it from the rest of the homogenously-postulated continent, it still manages to deliver Afrigasms wholesale. “I just feel happier here, I love this city!” Of course we do. Even with a study loan or a – by Western standards – modest income, Cape Town offers us the opportunity to move up a social class and enjoy a standard of living many of us could never afford back home. Try having your sushi and cocktails in Stuttgart or Den Haag thrice a week with a study loan. (Didn’t think so. But can you blame us?)

Yet it’s not so much the high life in itself that turns our Africa Sweet Spot on. Rather, it’s the combination of many things; yes, the joyful upper class experience in places like the Radisson, Sheraton or Cape Town’s Camps Bay, and the chance to stroll the streets in bohemian Observatory in bare feet without worrying about tetanus turn us on; but so do the ‘do-good’ opportunities on every street corner and the chance to generously reward our cleaning lady with a bag of left-overs, whilst paying her the equivalent of a couple of Stockholmian espressos for a day of labor.

So every time we see a broken-down car being pushed down the street or when we find ourselves waiting for a late taxi and catch a ‘umlungu’ or ‘Hey Lady!’ from a bypassing overcrowded bus, we sigh, we smile, we think TIA and whoop!

It is these kinds of TIA experiences that are often written home about. Whilst seemingly innocent and often written with affection, it is these nonstories and their reproducing position within the dominant western discourse on Africa that keep our distorted perceptions and disturbing stereotypes alive. They subtly legitimize the occasional KFC and Big Black Mambo joke, when (guess what!) they’re racist! It’s this same legitimizing power that made the editor of the Dutch magazine Jackie wonder why people were overreacting to her magazine’s lively explanation on how to dress like a N* bitch, late last year. The Western discourse on Africa, grounded in centuries-old traditions of rigid stereotyping, continues to define the African ‘other’ who is most often portrayed as a powerless victim or random struggler.

Successful and actualized Africans hardly ever get a place in this discourse. Nor does functional Africa. Because they don’t appeal to our more ‘real’ African experiences (which are, needless to say, different in various cities, locales, and regions, and dependent on the day, weather, our mood/mood of the persons we encounter, and maybe also the way the wind blew) and don’t correspond with what media has told us ‘Africa’ is. The problem is that by disseminating and singling out the TIA non-stories, we ourselves actively perpetuate the same colonial discourse that has dominated Western media and legitimized white domination for centuries. We choose not to see our own experiences as random, individualized, and varied. The assertive, self-reliant, successful, confident, functional and orderly version of the many ‘Africas’ out there won’t help string our special experience to those millions of TIAs that came before it.

My Dutch driver’s license is about to expire, so I applied for a South African driver’s test today. Around 2pm I entered my local traffic department office, where a lady approached me and asked me how she could assist me. Professionally. She directed me to the appropriate queue to get my application form stamped. Slickly. The queue moved quickly and I got my stamp within three minutes. Efficiently. The lady behind the counter referred me to office 14 where I would undergo an eye test. Logically. Less than 10 minutes later I found myself staring through a modern machine, following instructions to count differently-sized squares. Finally, I paid my 69 Rand application fee and walked out with a printout listing the date for my exam. It stressed I had to be on time.

A nonstory indeed. Hardly an experience, really. But it’s a manifestation of something that shouldn’t be ignored and is worth writing home about: It’s Functional Africa. Quite the turn-on, isn’t it?

* Maria Hengeveld studies Sociology and Gender at the University of Cape Town. She currently works for the Children’s Radio Foundation. Previously, she blogged here (with TJ Tallie) about pinkwashing South Africa. The images are by Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, a Kenyan photographer working in Nairobi.