Claims about Africa

by on November 16, 2008 at 6:44 am in Travels | Permalink

The conversation confirmed an opinion that has crystallised over the
past few years: if, as a westerner, you are going to visit Africa, the
earlier in your life you do it, the better. By the time you are in your
twenties, your head is so stuffed with preconceived opinions, mostly of
the ethically self-flagellating variety, you can barely see, let alone
interpret, what is going on outside you.

Here is the link, courtesy of www.bookforum.com.  I am interested in the claim that there is an optimal time in one’s life to travel.  Many people do not get to travel much until their children leave the house.  But when are the cognitive returns to travel the highest?  I believe one must first know some theory before travelling — perhaps even some false theory — otherwise the travel does not come as a sufficient shock.  In other words, the more you read and ponder social reality, the lower is your optimal cognitive age for travel.

1 Rosie November 16, 2008 at 7:12 am

As someone who has traveled to Africa on three separate occasions I have to agree with this idea. My first trip was when I was 18 and even though I’d read a lot about Africa and really wanted to go, my first trip (when I was staying in the absolute bush) was quite the eye opener. I had reverse culture shock coming back to the US and seeing what an opulent society I live in.

On my first trip I learned a lot of language and culture. I went every two years during college and in retrospect is seems that I became more set in my ways and less open to learning and absorbing what was around me. Of course, that could also be because the first time is always the most exciting.

2 RM November 16, 2008 at 7:43 am

What’s the optimal noncognitive age for travel? — cognition not being the only thing in life.

3 meter November 16, 2008 at 8:39 am

My first travels abroad – like most Americans who do – were to Europe. It helped me in later years in more “challenging” destinations as by that point I was used to being in airports, hopping from city to city and country to country, a set of routines and experiences that in themselves can overwhelm a new traveler.

By the time I reached India I was already a seasoned traveler. I cannot imagine trying to navigate let alone digest/process those experiences without having had a bunch of stamps in my passport already.

I haven’t yet had the time to visit sub-Saharan Africa, but if it is anything approaching India or the Middle East in terms of amount of energy and open mind required, I would agree that it’s best to visit when you’re on the right side of 30(ish).

4 Simon Halliday November 16, 2008 at 9:24 am

As a South African born, White African who has travelled a fair amount of South Africa and Southern Africa (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Nambibia, etc) I always find it odd a) when people use the continental aggregator ‘Africa’, b) that they often regard African countries as more foreign and ‘other’ prior to their arrival than after, and c) how they feel the urgent need to ‘experience the local culture’ as if it was uniform and, again, aggregated.

I took my undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town where, every year, many North American exchange students would come to do courses on ‘Africa’. For example, the second year (sophomore) African Literature course was approximately half-filled with North Americans travelling to Africa for the first time and intending to access ‘genuine African’ academic and cultural experiences. They were often amazed as much by the similarities as they were by the differences and the diversity of cultural experiences (generalizing grossly).

Anyway, the point of this is that to enter in a naive state, say as a child, where you are unaware of post-colonial theory and imperialism may allow a more genuine experience of the various cultures with which you come into contact. Being aware of these factors though does not make it impossible to associate, but it may mean that you need to break down preconceptions to let yourself have a good time, to enjoy those things you can and to marvel at those things you can’t or don’t enjoy.

5 meter November 16, 2008 at 10:24 am

Simon, don’t you think that Cape Town isn’t representative of what most Americans think of when they say they want to visit Africa?

Regarding your point b), that’s nearly universally true of any travel experience, isn’t it? (Though traveling in the American South made me feel the opposite.)

6 odograph November 16, 2008 at 10:38 am

Maybe what I have is a prejudice … that people who don’t travel until later have a stronger opinion of how things “should be.”

7 Peripetatic Entrepreneur November 16, 2008 at 11:58 am

I had the great fortune to stumble into worldwide travel at the age of 24. I left my grad school program (political science) and used my savings to travel for six months in Sweden, Turkey, Greece, India, Nepal, Thailand and Korea. I finally ended up in Taiwan, where I learned Chinese and started my first company.

Now that I am at the stage of raising kids and supporting a family, I realize what a great thing early, extensive travel is. It formed the foundation of my worldview and is a central part of who I am (note my chosen pseudonym).

8 brainwarped November 16, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Travel as a naive child, and you will be most likely to assimilate into the culture while you are there; afterward, you will grow into a more mature person.

Travel as a learned adult, and you will have a “culture shock”, which will make it harder to “see what is going on around you”. It will be much harder to assimilate while you are there, and when you return, you will feel the “reverse culture shock”, which will help you mature; however, I would expect most adults to refuse to admit they were wrong, and take the experience as a “fun trip” to never be pondered except as an adventure.

Duration of the trip should be considered, as I expect the longer the trip for a learned adult, the more likely it will have a lasting effect.

9 vanya November 16, 2008 at 5:00 pm

The funny thing about the article is that the author’s 16-year old niece doesn’t demonstrate any particularly keen insight. I know plenty of 60 year olds who could go to Africa and come up with “Gosh, if you’re white here you really can’t blend in!” or “Are all Kenyan policemen corrupt?”. If anything her impressions of Africa seem simply naive and shallow. Europeans may carry a lot of guilt with them when they visit Africa, and maybe that does skew how they understand the country. Most white Americans don’t carry that baggage and doesn’t know much about Africa to start with (not saying they shouldn’t, but they just don’t) so 15 or 65 probably doesn’t matter that much.

10 Paul N November 16, 2008 at 8:31 pm

The older I get the fewer “preconceived notions” I have, and every year I’m better at interpreting things (but much worse at remembering things…)

11 MM November 16, 2008 at 10:02 pm

I also take some exception to idea that traveling while your young is more cognitively useful. It seems to me this would only apply if you’re someone who is going to become cognitively inflexible. As others above have noted, I’ve lost more preconceived notions than I’ve gained, and have learned (as best I can) simply not to have them, or to not be shocked when they are challenged.

I’ll admit, however, one tremendous impact I took from travel to SE Asia and Europe in my 20’s: For all the world opines on provincial Americans, and for all Americans and the rest of the world seem to believe foreign (non-American) press is head-and-shoulders above our own in telling “the truth” and printing facts that Americans don’t know, the views and beliefs held about America by non-Americans – even very well-educated ones – are often *astoundingly* ill-informed, even on simple day-to-day topics.

12 johnleemk November 16, 2008 at 11:57 pm

I’ll just chime in to ditto MM and agm. I’ve spent most my life in various parts of Southeast Asia, but I’ve traveled quite a bit (I once managed to set foot on three continents in less than a week). My family currently lives in New Zealand and I am studying in an American university. I’m always somewhat surprised by peers (from home and from college) who think of traveling as something you just have to do. I am the type who does not like to travel very much (although I’m probably just as well-traveled as those in my peer group) so I suppose that contributes, but I also think of traveling as something you can’t really afford to do – that it’s a really luxurious thing to do.

And switching gears, MM is completely right – people almost everywhere are pretty much the same. Americans often have a silly perception of the rest of the world, and vice-versa. I’m not really surprised by it anymore.

13 David Wright November 17, 2008 at 4:04 am

Word to improbable! Ages 18-38, I have been to foreign places for times short and long, where I spoke the languaage and where I didn’t, and I always learned a lot.

14 Nijma November 17, 2008 at 8:23 pm

The ‘oh-wow’ sort of travel you do when you’re young and don’t have enough money for even a guidebook certainly helps set the stage for understanding the subject later. How much would I have been able to concentrate on reading about Europe, Africa, Asia or the Middle East if I had not seen these places with my own eyes and could imagine the scenes the author was writing about. Of course, if you really want to set the stage, nothing beats actually living there for a few years.

15 Tracy W November 18, 2008 at 6:12 am

I am beyond my twenties, and went to Africa for the first time earlier this year, and yet I don’t think my head was full of ethnically self-flagellating opinions, as I am inclined to think self-flagellation is a waste of energy. Of course I’d already travelled a bit in both the third world and the developed world, having been to North America and East Asia in my teens and again in my twenties, and to Europe.

What I find is that as I get older I learn more, and thus get more out of each trip. For example, when I travelled to Thailand with my husband I found myself seeing a whole new view on the country than when I had been there with my parents – my husband notices construction techniques. Now even when I am in a new place without him I find myself looking at construction techniques too.

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