The Myth of the African travel writer

Bethnal Green, London. By @Nyathikano
Bethnal Green, London. By @Nyathikano

The proposition that I attend the African Travel Writing Encounters (ATWE) workshop held at the University of Birmingham in the UK on a blustery, drizzly day in March came from a close acquaintance who fits the customary profile of a professional travel writer – meaning that he is white and male. Daniel Metcalfe, my acquaintance, followed his own impulse: he travelled solo around Angola for three months and recorded his discoveries, adventures and experiences in the critically-acclaimed Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey into Angola, published in 2013.

But the line-up of speakers seemed to have been hand-picked explicitly to shake-up such complacent views as I held prior to arriving at the university’s labyrinthine medical school where the workshop took place. With the exception of University of Sussex graduate student Matthew Lecznar, all the male presenters were black African, and all the white ones were female. And the marathon session (we began at nine in the morning and finished late into happy hour) was brought to a triumphant close by the irrepressible and enormously talented Lola Akinmade Åkerström (a Nigerian, now living in Sweden), whose evocative photography is represented by National Geographic Creative and travel writing has been published in a plethora of national and international media outlets.

In fact, Lola’s presentation was one of only three given by Africans who are practicing travel writers. Fellow Nigerian, Pelu Awofeso was another, and Zambian author Humphrey Nkonde was linked to the meeting by telephone after encountering problems in his bid for a British visa (par for the course when you attempt to ram global travel and Africans into the same frame). Most of the remaining presenters hailed from universities and research institutes in Algeria, Brazil, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, and United Kingdom – in other words, they were scholars.

And, given that the racial profile of Britain’s academic staff almost precisely mirrors that of the traditional travel writing cohort, I won’t startle anyone by saying that the UK-based academics in attendance were almost all white. In other words, despite the surprising and exhilarating racial diversity on display, it remained true that, like a Montgomery County magnet school, most of the blacks had been bussed (more accurately, flown) in. And the main reason why this matters is because it highlights an important loop-hole in equality and diversity initiatives in UK higher education that arises from the popular notion of the ‘global university.’ Higher education institutions can buy in diversity through funding for international research projects, conferences, networks and the like, while simultaneously falling short of rectifying glaring racial inequalities locally.

Appropriately enough, one of the first papers, delivered by York university-based researcher Janet Remmington, drew attention to the possibilities for unsettling the status quo inherent in travel that is seen as “without purpose” or “meandering.” Her subject, Sol Plaatje, was at one time described by colonial South African officials as a “political native engaged in peregrinations amounting to travel (my emphasis).”

Despite breaking new ground in several ways, the workshop’s presentations – running the gamut from journeys undertaken by Moroccan ambassadors in the 19th century (Hamza Salih) to Samuel Crowther’s expeditions to the Niger (Alexsander Gebara), and inclusive of the contemporary travel writing showcased by Awofeso and Nkonde – failed to reflect the basic concept of the European archetype: travel undertaken for its own sake. African travelers, it would seem, must still justify their movements across the planet (whether the motives be professional, economic or political). Passports may have replaced passbooks for a number of us; but we must still answer the question, “Why are you here?”

Christabelle Peters

Christabelle Peters is Leverhulme fellow at the University of Warwick and author of ‘Cuban Identity and the Angolan Experience’ (2014).

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