“I just fell in love with Africa, and I can’t wait to go back.”
“I felt at home there, as if I had found a part of myself.”
“There’s something about Africa that completely enchanted me.”
Over the course of a thousand-plus interviews for field placements, I’ve heard the above sentiments countless times from Western applicants looking to return to their beloved continent. At face value, the statements are sweet, innocent, and innocuous. I, for one, can identify completely. But could there be something below the surface of this Westerner-turned-Africa-lover phenomenon that is worth examining? My experience tells me yes.
I vividly recall my first time in Africa. Wide-eyed and freshly 17, struggling to reconcile the combination and poverty and wealth I saw before me, I remember thinking I had entered a whole new reality. There was so much about that reality that was ugly, unjust, and just plain wrong. And yet…I walked away loving it. I pined to return. Why?
The full answer to that question lies deeper than I may ever understand, let alone explain. People’s passions and motivations are far too complicated to boil down to singular cause and effect. Nonetheless, there is one central influencing phenomenon that I think goes all-too-often unnamed: being a Westerner in Africa can feel really, really good.
At home in your daily Western life, how often do people say hello to you on the streets? How often do they go out of their way to help you or find you what you need? How often do they treat you with unnecessary deference and respect, ask you questions and listen as if you were an expert, or want your address so you can be best friends? How often do they propose marriage to you, tell you you’re beautiful, and actually like it when you gain a few pounds? How often do you enter a school and get treated as royalty, get invited to a stranger’s home and find a feast prepared just for you, or have people scurry to give up their chairs when you try to sit on the ground?
The truth is that being a Westerner in the vast majority of African countries comes with a whole lotta perks (power, influence, deference, respect), and a whole lotta ego-boosting. Some of the way that Westerners are treated is just because of a different socio-cultural construct; much of it is specifically because of their color and relative ‘status’. Either way, it takes either a very experienced or a semi-robotic person to be immune to the psychological boosts that being a westerner in Africa often provides. Especially as a young girl, and still on through the years, I know that these benefits have influenced the way I perceive my experience of the continent. It feels good to be liked and to be respected. And I know that my experience is not unlike that of hundreds of people I’ve heard from throughout the years.
As any good manager or psychologist will tell you, understanding our emotions, motivations, and psychological weaknesses is critical to sound and just decision-making. In the highly emotionally charged world of aid and international development, this is ever more true. I cannot pretend to understand the complex multitude of factors that combine to form Africa’s mysterious allure. And yet as insecure and egotistical creatures, we must at least be willing to accept and examine one of the most obvious: our own psyches. If we don’t, we’ll never mitigate its effects. We are, after all, only human.