AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

In a recent interview, Pepijn Vloemans, a regular commentator in Dutch mainstream press and the author of the book ‘Wat hebben we weer genoten’ (What a joy we had), described how his drive for adventure and experimental urge to test himself in a low-comfort environment led him to Africa. We’ve lifted and translated some highlights from the interview:

Vloemans: In the Netherlands I lead my comfortable life, while so many things are going on in the world, of which I have no knowledge at all. I thought to myself: “What am I still doing here? I need to leave!” My goal was to test myself in a less comfortable environment. Without thinking I booked a trip to one of the unsafest places in the world. Only roughly did I outline my route. I wanted to travel up along the Nile, through Uganda, to continue to South Sudan, which had just become independent. I had not read a Lonely Planet in advance. I decided to simply go.

Interviewer: You are not particularly advertising Africa in your book.

Vloemans: I intentionally didn’t romanticize the story and left out the beautiful sunsets. Reading about how merry the life of Africans is annoys me, which is why I wanted to show its shadow side. The people over there don’t complain about their situation and as a consequence there is no progress. My book is a praise to the chagrin. [The Dutch' never-ending] complaints about delayed trains might be bad, but it does lead to improvement. In Africa buses only leave when they are full. Apparently no one minds to be late.

Next to the absence of outrage, the short term thinking of many Africans surprised me. I felt I was constantly living in some student digs. For every problem, they seek a ‘houtje touwtje’ [ad hoc] solution. Is the bus door broken? Well, let’s go without it then. It scared me how many people only look one day ahead. I saw the value in the long-term solutions as we have them in Holland, such as old age pensions and hospitals… 
It almost feels naughty to write something negative about Africa, but the progress that needs to take place is so fundamental that I wondered what development cooperation could contribute. Politically, I became more right wing.

The interview then drifts off into how Vloemans discovers he actually needs his comfort and envies anthropologists, whose energy and interests leads them to indulge into different cultures, before getting back to familiar subjects:

Interviewer: Despite diarrhea, visa stress, unbearable heat and pests, did you also have good times?

Vloemans: Definitely, at certain moments. The city of Gondar was a paradise to me after my journey through the dessert. And the city of Addis Abeba, high up in the Ethiopian mountains surprised me with its fresh air, fresh espressos and Eucalyptus scents. But after those rough weeks I especially enjoyed coming back home to our wealthy country, where everything is well managed.

The book comes with a blurb by much-praised author and much-invited post-colony expert Adriaan van Dis: “Pepijn Vloemans is a true Africa traveller: a man who explores the abysses and the heart of darkness.”

To ensure a minimum of lost-in-translation-damage, we have sent Pepijn an email. He has not yet responded.

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Maria Hengeveld

Maria Hengeveld, a graduate student in human rights at Columbia University, writes about youth development, feminism, education and the media. Before New York City, she lived for four years in South Africa.


11 thoughts on “Dutch author: ‘If only Africans would complain a bit more’

  1. Journey through the dessert mmm… Oh, that kinda distracted me. Did this fellow attempt to consider that at certain points there is so much too complain about, that the time might be better off invested getting on with the business of living? Or perhaps after 50yrs of complaining to successive unresponsive and isolated regimes (isolated in the sense that getting into political power in Africa tends to come with moving to another universe) people might just be fatigued? Just some points for consideration I want to bring up.

  2. It would be great if the author does answer your email, perhaps you could post his reply, and begin a dialog that might lead him to a more nuanced understanding of a) where he has been and b) his responsibility as an author to go a little deeper than this kind of cliche’d “observation”. In fairness, though, your critique does not go much deeper than his travelog, so this post as it stands simply draws more attention to a poor piece of nearly-racist reportage.

  3. “the people over there…”; “…abysses and heart of darkness”–“nearly-racist”? Please!!! Vloemans and van Dis are outright racists!

  4. How narrow minded! Both the interviewer and the interviewee! Typical ‘white men’ who think that they have solutions to Africa’s problems. Kindly stay in your wealthy country and leave Africa to solve its own problems. Opportunist….his only interest is in selling a book that continues to portray Africa as a doomed continent!

  5. I love this darling man so much. He portrays such an accurate portrait…of himself, and sadly, a pervasive Dutch sense of entitlement/we know better attitude. He was scared that poor people only thought as far as the next day? Heath care, honey, is a luxury for when you have more you can provide for than in the immediate future. It’s simple economic reality, not some exotic African animal. Also love his arse-ish comments like “why don’t they complain that the bus leaves only when it’s full/Africans are late bec. they don’t “complain” rather than seeing that it makes economic sense for driver/bus company to have as many fares as possible.

    I guess he complained that the other does not complain.

  6. I find it very important to both publish such a book (+ interview) as an apparantly honest report about his feelings and perceptions and to report about it in this blog in order to discuss it. I find it less appropriate to critize the author personally, as I don’t think he intended to do harm. In contrary, now a discussion can happen: Where does the author come from (culturally)? How did he misunderstand his experiences or what did he failed to consider? Does he represent a wide-spread view of western people?

    Here, I find some of the comments above very helpful. I wished there would be more people who a) honestly reported their feelings (without a fear of being politically incorrect), b) documented about such reports (like this blog) and c) countered perceptions or views from a different perspective (like some of the comments)

  7. This guy sounds so Dutch. And yes, it is tipically Dutch to complain about everything and think that complaining is the answer to all your problems. And yes in the Netherlands it is. We have free press, we have advisory boards that take your complains very serious. And if a product is broken to soon, you call the producer to complain and it happens that they renew your product and get something extra because it didn’t work properly. And busses run on time tables. And unfortunatelly it’s also Dutch to stay on the surface and not to dig deeper into the material. And yes, I’m also Dutch myself and yes I have visited several African countries. I wonder if this guy has every been on the African continent before he made this trip. I experienced my first trip to Africa as shocking also, but that was because truelly everything was different from what I was used too. On my later trips I learned how to get used to the African way of life and that is still an ongoing learning process. I’m not there yet.

  8. Greetings,

    First; I thank for the person who has translated the article with making me notice the gentleman and his book. From the parts translated; I noticed the gentleman complains about his own culture at first, towards the stillness of life, the order of development and perhaps the lack of “adventure” as he thinks “adventure” comes from “disorder”, or from a future which cannot be read. Personally; I have visited, and shortly lived in Netherlands, and even managed to fall in love with a Dutch girl who was coming from a little tiny village, in the middle of nowhere. During our conversations, she also complained one thing; the lack of “adventure”, as “everything is planned”. Everything; with everything; the system in schools, the streets, bus timetables et cetera, which is a usual habit of daily life in any western European country, on the other hand; I, myself, grew up in a country where order and disorder is in constantly in fight, political stances of people are easily turning out into a minor.political turmoil. So, perhaps because of this difference; whenever she was complaining about the stillness of life and lack of “carpe diem”, it was a valuable observation for me. I believe this is what previous commentator, marliesinafrica, meant with “he is so ‘Dutch'”, also.

    Vloemans possess a right-wing stance, as far as we know and after his visit to few African countries by the river; he returned his home with missing his comfort-zone, like anyone who travels into a different place; we miss where we take our ideas, or in broader view; life from… So there is nothing wrong there, although, he lacks the history. He lacks the history of Africa, so in my account; he is like a person going into Rome; just heard about Roman Empire, the Vatican, Renaissance and Kingdoms of Italy, he possesses some knowledge, although it’s very limited, therefore this limited knowledge makes him confused, he cannot give a meaning to the life of Africans where they do think “the next day” but no more than that. For him, they must think about the rest, too… Although; Africa is a country, suffered terribly by the colonialists, even after they left; Africa kept suffering. Such as today in DR Congo; the ownership of precious diamond mines and the problems of armed, organized people, such militias/guerrillas/terrorist, whichever you call, is still ongoing. Maybe here, we should remember of Patrice Lumumba; who was an African, he underlined the problems of Congolese and how this standing up and talking caused him, his life… This is no bright example; but imagine the trauma of a person, or a nation; would you feel safe to express your ideas, towards future, and moreover; make plans for your own future, while your next day is in darkness?

    This is, of course, one example. True; Africans do suffer. True; living in harshest conditions and everyone would want and plus “deserve” a little luxury in their life, or at least a little “order and peace”, although Africa lacks this two. How can we take complaining into second step; if we do not accept the facts, the cultures as they are? Personally; I have no wish to see African dances disappear, because it’s a way of expression for me. Although; if Africans behave like “a Westerner”, as perhaps this gentleman thinks they should and solve their problems this way; will they be African, or just African without an African mind and understanding?
    ***

    In short summary; Vloemans complains about the lack of development, in Africa, with finding its’ reasons in common African stance towards life; “value your day, stay alive, do not be hungry”, of normal people, and he finds the wrong point here, although he expresses (as far as I understood from interview, please excuse me, as I haven’t read his book, although I’m not going to do, after this kind of stance, if it will be translated into English) his dislike and disapproval with telling that, “politically, I became more right wing”, as a form of nonacceptance the culture he traveled in. How can we suddenly go somewhere else and say; “you’re doing this like that, although I didn’t like how you did it, do it my way…”, I see some intolerance and ignorance here, unfortunately. So, for me, he is a young gentleman, longing for adventure and pleasure… Maybe all because of Kipling’s “the Jungle Book”, who knows?

    ***

    Thank you for reading this, if you ever do… And, if I bored someone much; I excuse for this habit of mine.

  9. Hi Marliesinafrica, I live in Holland, and have done for a few years now. I completely agree that the Dutch attitude to almost everything is to just “have a word” no matter how thoughtless, insensitive and often-uncalled for it happens to be. HOWEVER, you are incorrect about the Dutch efficiency… I won’t bother to point out the GROSS incompetence of the Dutch public transportation system, ridiculous lack of respect for customers let alone outright refusal by rude, loud, over-paid and yet under-qualified Dutch staff in every area of commerce to refund or remedy errors on their part, nor of the rude ethnocentric and Euroskeptic attitude of a large portion of Dutch society; because that would take too long. Just as you are getting used to African inefficiency, I wish you well, because I don’t think I will ever get used to Dutch arrogance and ignorance parading itself as “directness”.

  10. The author just took one story and made it his story; more like looking at one of the several faces of a dice. I’m sure moving through the continent of America would provide a host of stories too therefore Africa wouldn’t be different.

    “Diarrhea, visa stress, unbearable heat and pests” sounds more like he left the beaten track and was wandering through the wilderness. So he couldn’t get himself some clean bottled water? Furthermore, every intelligent person traveling to another region would prepare him/herself for the climatic conditions of the new region. You don’t head off to the alps without bringing winter clothing and other suitable gear.

    “A true Africa traveller: a man who explores the abysses and the heart of darkness.” – A huge blob of ignorance.

  11. Dear Kevin,

    While reading this I was literally in shock that you described exactly what I wanted to reply back. I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you for speaking my mind.

    p.s. I loved how considerate and understanding you were and nor can your comment bore anyone!

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