Saturday, July 30, 2016

What Sets a Non-Western Expat's Relationship with Africans Apart from That of the Western Expat?

The reaction of the customers sitting around sipping their beers could not have been any different.  Just moments before, when the author entered the little roadside cafe on his way back from the local museum visit, the six half-drunken old men could not contain their excitement upon seeing a Chinese guy walking into their usual hangout spot.  But now, after asking where the author is from and receiving "America" as the answer, the crowd quickly grew tame and quiet.  The enthusiasm to strike up further conversation dissipated, and they left the author mostly to wait for his meal in silence.

It was not until that the author made attempts to bring the conversation back to the topic of the Chinese (in particular, "are there many Chinese people who come around here?") did some of the excitement return among the group.  Each spoke to the Asians they've seen and worked with in the area (Chinese construction crews, Japanese aid agencies staff, Korean volunteers); some even pulled out pictures of Asians on their smartphones, hoping to get some assistance from the author on identifying what kind of Asian is the people on the photograph.  Cheerfulness returned and "America" was never again mentioned by anyone.

The difference between the crowd's reaction to Asia and America (and by extension, Westerners in general) is striking.  By where the author was, it makes sense.  The little town of Kalenga is historically the center of the Hehe tribe that dominates the Iringa region, headquarters of the historical Hehe Kingdom.  It is here that the last Hehe chief Mkwawa put up a futile resistance against the German colonial forces, ending with his capture.  The Germans proudly commemorated their victory by chopping off Mkwawa's head and exhibiting in the Bremen Museum back in Germany.  Only after WWII did the skull return to Kalenga.

In other words, it could be deduced that while in Iringa town, with its origin as the German colonial administration center, the population has long submitted to the prowess of the colonial authorities, out here in Kalenga, a low-level resentment toward the West for eradicating the vibrant (and regionally powerful) Hehe royal authorities remains.  Such resentment should be all the more painful considering that Kalenga of today acts no more than a dusty pitstop on the way to Ruaha National Park, a Westerners-infested source of revenue for the Tanzanian government.  None of its history as the Hehe royal capital remains visually.

Thankfully, at least some of Hehe Kingdom's former glory is preserved in the one-room museum a few minutes walk outside the little town's market center.  Here, aside from the above-mentioned skull of Chief Mkwawa, are tombs of a few of his wives and some tools and artworks from the era.  However, even here, a series of photographs of German Governor-Generals and colonial buildings take up a quarter of the exhibition space, directly insulting the Chief, who in his lifetime of anti-colonial wars, probably would have wanted nothing to do with those who took his Kingdom by force.  The paradox is obvious to all visitors.

It is this kind of historical burden that would accompany any Western visitor to Kalenga.  The bloodletting of their ancestors cannot be hidden, and given the sorry state of the town, the past atrocities have not been compensated in form of economic assistance.  While the author does not advocate the belief that past brutality justifies monetary handouts, the fact that Iringa, the German colonial town, remains the vibrant center of the wider region while Kalenga, the tribal capital, languishes in unnoticed poverty is definitely not a comforting one.  It smacks of continued colonial mentality rather than rectification of past wrongs.

This should be partially why the author as an Asian visitor is much more warmly received than the author as an American citizen.  Kalenga's, and Hehe Kingdom's, downfall has nothing to do with Asians.  In fact, if anything, all over Asia, there are countless examples of small nations or tribes who suffered exactly the same fate as the Hehe Kingdom.  Too many ancient Asian cities have also gone the way of Kalenga, obscured by metropolises founded by and flourished under colonial regimes.  For the Asian, then, to understand Kalenga's history is about empathetic sympathy, not of feigned atonement that Westerners will contend with.

If anything, this lack of need to atone for a dark past may the non-Western's expat's greatest resource here in Africa.  While Westerners have to constantly refer to "high moral standards" to offset any suspicions of neo-colonialism, for non-Westerners, they simply have to distance themselves from the West, in ideology, in business practices, and in treatment of locals.  Granted, to extricate themselves completely from how West does things will be difficult for Asians, but the ability for Africans to initially welcome them with open arms rather than preconceived anti-colonial bias is already a massive advantage against Westerners that ought to be leveraged more effectively.

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