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Sensitive: should I be preparing for a return to 'colonial' views?

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Jan 3rd, 2006, 09:22 AM
  #1
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Sensitive: should I be preparing for a return to 'colonial' views?

As I'm nearing my trip to Kenya, I've been reading some literature - most recently 'Out of Africa' and "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight' - and I'm starting to get concerned that I won't be able to stomache some of the racial attitudes I could encounter. I realize that Blixen's book was written in a different era; however, after reading the second, more current book and talking to a friend who just had a cousin marry into a game park owner's family and talk about that, I feel pretty certain that I will hear opinions on race and 'people's place in society' that I strongly disagree with.

Have you run into this, and, if this bothered you, how have you dealt with it? I do understand that there's not really any chance of changing people's views, but I would have a hard time being silent.

Thanks!

Cheryl
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Jan 3rd, 2006, 09:59 AM
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I find your question interesting as I am currently reading "Scribbling the Cat" (Same author as Don't let's go...) and am taken aback by the frankness with which racial tensions and attitudes are discussed (some of them horribly distateful).

Meanwhile, when we were in Tanzania in August 2005 on our first safari, we encountered none of that kind of attitude--not because it doesn't exist (I am sure it does) but because we were there as tourists and tourism is a big industry and upsetting tourists with political remarks isn't good for business.

So, I think the answer depends on the country (for you, Kenya) and the type of travel you are doing. I doubt the casual tourist is likely to encounter this problem whereas someone doing a research study, aid work, etc. might.

Curious to hear whether anyone has had a specific experience he/she can share.
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Jan 3rd, 2006, 10:20 AM
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We encountered "colonial" views on the Kenya Air flight from LHR to NBO. There was a large group of Kenyan teenagers who had travelled for a...I don't know, rugby or something tournament in London. They all got quite drunk on the plane and were misbehaving. When one of the flight attendants told one kid that he couldn't sleep lying down in the aisle, the kid afterward disdainfully told his friends "They can't tell us what to do. We essentially OWN this airline."

He did get up, but the attitude of these teenagers to the flight attendants was a sight to see. They treated the staff with such disdain and disrespect. I found it weird and disturbing and really repugnant.

Thankfully, we encountered nothing else like that for the rest of our trip. And it *was* a bunch of drunken, apparently overprivileged (or something) teenagers. They're not known for good behavior.

How did my friend and I deal with it? Oh, shamefully passively, I must admit. I kicked the back of their seats, rolled my eyes a lot, harumphed, and commiserated with the flight attendants and our fellow passengers.

Good luck, Cheryl.
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Jan 3rd, 2006, 11:00 AM
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Have seen very little of it in South Africa and Botswana. Usually if you encounter it, it is with older South Africans.
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Jan 3rd, 2006, 11:23 AM
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I saw none of that in Kenya, Tanzania or Rwanda. For the most part everywhere I went, things were run by Africans (or at least they were up front). Even at the Nairobi Hilton, managers and other top people were African.

I have a love hate relationship with movies/books like Out of Africa, yes there is something glorious and 'refined' about those time periods. But I hate a bunch of English people sipping tea and reveling in how wonderful they are while Africans serve them.

I just started watching A Passage to India, which is of course filled with the English attitude towards the Indian people they were ruling over and it makes me cringe.

I am almost certain you won't get much of that in your Safari.
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Jan 3rd, 2006, 11:36 AM
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As a tourist you’re probably not going to encounter any racial attitudes. Anyway, 99 % of people living in Kenya are normal black Kenyans, as are most people you’ll meet. Unfortunately, in a poor country with very wide income differences there is a very colonial view of “people’s place in society”. All people who remotely can consider themselves middle class have a “house-boy” and at most camps – I was told at one that supposedly was an exception to the norm – management, regardless of colour, treat staff in a “colonial” way with constant threats of sacking. I’ve never heard any opinions on race, but once I felt very uneasy when a foreign hotel owner showed a basket in which mangoes had been sent from the coast and that the staff had opened by making a hole in the side instead of lifting the top. It showed something about how “THEY” were and then she gave the example of her rich black neighbour’s former cook who had had a very good and easy job just making breakfast and dinner and cleaning the lower floor, but still couldn’t refrain from stealing from his employer. “THEY” were just so, so, so … She was talking to a couple of guests at the table next to me while I was having dinner, but I think I was included as well – the other guests were humming and smiling and I felt I had to say something - but I didn’t find any words. “THEY” were obviously people of a lower social class, but I find class superiority just as disgusting as race superiority and the two often go hand in hand, as they probably did in this case even though the hotel owner knew it’s not acceptable to express race superiority.

Cheryl, you don’t have to be silent – I’d even say you shouldn’t - if you hear opinions on “race and people's place in society”. If you don’t know what to say just stand up and walk away, or use some swearwords. Though it’s very unlikely you’ll find yourself in this situation in Kenya. There’s probably a bigger risk “at home”, wherever that is.
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Jan 3rd, 2006, 11:58 AM
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I’m currently reading a colonial book without much tea sipping: Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins

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Jan 3rd, 2006, 12:47 PM
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I agree with Nyamera (who put it very well) in that you are more likely to encounter class discrimination than race discrimination.

I have found this to be true in my travels to most places and not just in Africa.
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Jan 3rd, 2006, 01:22 PM
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Just my two cents worth, but I think when we travel we need to lower the gain on our “outrage” detectors.

People for millennia have been creating, maintaining, and rebalancing their sense of group identity and place in the world. You will find “us” and “them” everywhere. Whether it’s class based, race based, between those who hire or are hired, between trackers and guides, porters and sherpas, residents of Capri and Anacapri, or Swedish Lutherans and Norwegian Lutherans in the same small Minnesota town.

There is sometimes more and often less to it than it appears. As an outsider it can be very tricky to compute the actual distance between the us’s and the them’s, even more so the rate of change of that distance.

So be very circumspect and polite in your lessons to others.
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Jan 3rd, 2006, 01:59 PM
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Well said Favor.
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Jan 4th, 2006, 09:44 AM
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Indeed, well said.
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Jan 4th, 2006, 01:11 PM
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I haven’t read “Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight”, but I understand that Cheryl is worried about having to stomach hearing racist opinions from white Africans. In Kenya 99% of the population is black, while, of rich people, one third is black, one third white and one third “Asian”. I don’t agree with Favor that Cheryl should be very circumspect and polite when hearing opinions that, for example – because of all kinds of superiority – the percentage should be even more in favour of white people. As a tourist I’ve met very few white Kenyans and none has expressed this kind of opinion, I’ve only heard the opposite opinion. There is no need to have lived in a country for years to know what’s fair and what’s unfair and in the African context we have here it’s very basic historical knowledge. In my country there are lots of jokes about the stupidity of the people of a neighbouring country, but there is no discrimination whatsoever in the workplace or anywhere else, so I don’t care that much when hearing these jokes – I might even use them myself. On the other hand, there is real racist discrimination against immigrants from the Middle East and I don’t only sometimes hear jokes of bad taste, but even seriously meant remarks full of a sense of superiority – and then I try not to be too polite. I’ve never been to Thailand and don’t know much about the country, but if I went there and heard someone saying that all Italian diving centre owners are part of the Mafia I would maybe say that’s probably not true and then not think much about it. But, if someone would tell me all Burmese immigrant workers are smelly, primitive and unreliable and then go on about how to pay them as little as possible – that person would not be my friend.
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Jan 4th, 2006, 02:57 PM
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I think that both favor and nyamera make excellent points. Favor's, as I understand it, was to not take on a holier than thou judgmental view. As a U. S. citizen I can hardly tout our great record on race. Nyamera's point, as I understand it, is that there are certain comments that require a response--otherwise, silence is assent.
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Jan 5th, 2006, 06:00 AM
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I don't think you have to be silent. You can scream by showing respect and interest in everyone you meet.

Actions speak louder than words.

We Brits don't all behave the same....in the same way that not everyone from Mississippi wears a pointed white hood.

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Jan 6th, 2006, 02:21 PM
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A lot of good points. It sounds like I could run into some stuff, but I also understand that nobody's views are going to change through a confrontation. That said, if someone continues to 'go on and on' (as a friend's South African father did once), I can let them know that I don't share their views and we need to change the subject.

Cheryl
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