Six weeks, eight countries. I’ve just got back to Africa after a busy break back home in Europe. I went to the world’s largest travel show (more about why soon), spoke at a conference on climate change and sorted out a whole load of personal affairs.
While it was fantastic to see my family and I did enjoy some of the conveniences of life in Europe, it is good to be back in the Congo.
It is often said in travel that the real culture shock doesn’t occur when you go away, but when you return home.
There is undoubtedly some truth to this. Getting to know a new country happens gradually, being faced with your old life when you return home happens all of a sudden.
Taking this saying a step further, I found on this recent Africa-Europe-Africa trip that some of my clearest revelations and strongest feelings actually came to me when I arrived back in Africa.
Arriving in Africa is always an intense experience.
Much of the experience is physical. As I made my way overland on a three day journey from Yaoundé (Cameroon) back to Bayanga (Central African Republic), heading deeper and deeper into the Congo rainforest with every mile, the changes were simple and palpable.
The heat and humidity wrap around me like a blanket, relaxing muscles tense from the cold of a European winter; my senses are slowly overwhelmed by the cacophony of chirping birds and insects; the sweet, dark, pungent aromas of the forest compete with the exotic smells of roasting street food; all I can see is red roads, blue skies and foliage so green it looks like someone has edited a photo and overdone the colour saturation.
But even before this journey and these physical sensations, I had an experience at Yaoundé Airport that really made me reflect on the changes which happen to you when you arrive on this continent.
I step off a smart Air France plane, a little bubble of European comfort and efficiency, into the mosh-pit that is baggage reclaim at Nsimalen International. There is only one conveyor belt, which has certainly seen better days, in a pokey, grey, low-ceilinged room. Africans do not travel light and there is so much luggage piled onto this tiny conveyor that it strains and creaks, periodically grinding to a halt, unable to keep rotating due to the weight of the bags. People remove a few bags and it starts moving again. Any concept of passengers queuing in an orderly fashion is out of the window. It is a scrum. I am pressed hard up against my fellow travellers as everyone jostles for a place at the front. It is hot, smelly and noisy.
At first, my mindset is to “stand my ground”. I’ve chosen “my spot”, where “I’m going to stand and no one is going to move me from it”. I construct some (fairly pointless) notion of my personal space, and I try to defend it. I am being pushed and I stubbornly resist, pushing back to try and hold my place.
After 10 minutes of slowly getting more and more frustrated with the pushing and the chaos, something in my head clicks. Yes, this is a disorganised mess. Yes, it would be better if everyone just stopped pushing and lined up politely. But fighting it is not going to improve the situation. And actually, looking around, it is kind of working. People are getting their bags, despite the facilities and mechanics of the airport being inadequate to the task. Looking closer at the chaos, I can see that there are things happening that are making peoples lives easier, despite the difficulties. Fitter, younger men at the front are spotting and lifting bags, while older ladies at the bag shout out to them which are theirs; Mums and Dads hustle through the crowd, while their children are sat at the back guarding the family possessions; bags are passed overhead from person to person, stranger helping stranger.
As I stand and watch this small sea of humanity, I remember an African philosophical idea I once had explained to me. It is called “Ubuntu”. It roughly translates as this:
“I am, because you are”.
I thought about that idea for a moment.
A beautiful philosophy that really cuts to the heart of the human condition.
I only exist, I am who I am, because of you and who you are.
We all live in groups, in societies. Humans can achieve very little on their own, cooperating and working together with each other is at the heart of our success a species. We only survive and thrive because of other people. The groups in which we live also arguably define us, just as much as (or even perhaps more than) any individualistic concept of self. I know that my life is certainly dependent on others, for my health, safety and happiness. Without anyone else, it becomes very hard for me to exist.
I am, because you are.
So back in the baggage reclaim hall, I stop being stubborn. I relax. I allow myself to get jostled. If someone pushes me, I allow myself to be pushed. No big deal. I let go of the western, individualistic notion of “my place” and “personal space” and I accept that we are all in this situation together. We will all get our bags eventually. Everything starts to become easier. I’m no longer frustrated. I find myself more connected to everyone around me. Rather than being irritating, it actually all becomes something of a shared experience. I notice people laughing and smiling.
When the time finally comes to push to the front to get my bag, yes I have to jostle a little, but I do it with a smile and people part for me, someone helps me lift my rucksack up onto my back and I’m on my way.
This concept, of Ubuntu, of being connected to your fellow man, of being dependent on them for your existence, is one that I believe is really important when trying to understand the interconnected, communitarian nature of life in Africa.
Although Africa does not have a monopoly on this, all over the world we share meaningful human connections, there are perhaps things that we can learn from embracing this philosophy a little closer. In an increasingly individualistic and selfish world, where more and more people are isolated from each other, a dose of African humanity might be a good thing.
Africa is intense and it is complex. It is important not to over-romanticise the place (but the truth is that there is much to feel romantic about). Africa is a place of extremes. It is humanity at its most raw. Here you experience the very best and the very worst of what it means to be a human being. At its worst it is a place of brutal violence, menacing corruption and staggering disorganisation. But at its best, Africa is home to extraordinary displays of human kindness, to joy, creativity, colour and happiness, and, as I remembered in the baggage reclaim hall of Yaoundé airport, it is a place where you can make some quite unique connections with your fellow man.