Lessons in Being a Tourist in Africa (Part 1)

Some people are obnoxious! Some people are worse, but it’s hard to find a word to truly describe them.

We are spending a few days as tourists; canoeing the Zambezi to see the hippos and crocodiles, taking a sunset river cruise, and generally taking things easy as we settle into Africa. Not everyone has this luxury. I have mixed thoughts about my own privilege. I don’t deserve to be where I am, to enjoy the luxury of choosing to sleep in a tent so I can hear the sounds of the animals and the rain.

Today began with a canoe down the Zambezi. We were collected from our accommodation and driven to collect canoes before heading up river. The company leading the tour also offer helicopter and microlite rides. A group of 4 other tourists (clearly with a bit of money) had booked the microlite and one of their party was like a spoilt brat, complaining that he wouldn’t go if he couldn’t sit the front (ie fly himself rather than the qualified pilot) and take his own photos (ie hold his camera which he may drop). He became increasingly obnoxious, threatening not to fly but to go home for his breakfast, swearing at the staff, and making a scene reminiscent of a toddler having a temper tantrum. In short, he was an arse!

Lesson No.1: Don’t be an arse!

Everyone who is looking after us is black. That is of course no surprise, Zimbabwe and Zambia are African nations and the majority of people are black. The racial divides and inequalities become more apparent when we notice all the staff for the company providing our canoe tour are black apart from the pilots of the microlites and helicopters who are white. Presumably the opportunity to obtain a pilots license is limited to those who can afford to train. Does this mean that we shouldn’t support the tourist industry or feel guilty about our opportunities to access services that are restricted to others? No. If the economy is going to improve tourism is important. We need to come and we need to appreciate the wonderful views, the beauty of the country, the hospitality of the people, to engage with the culture rather than try to inflict our western mindset and expectations. The people here are proud of their country, their hospitality, their service. And they are right to be proud, without taking advantage we must come and honour them, to be grateful and to enjoy what this country has to offer.

Lesson No.2: Respect and honour the people, the culture and the hospitality.

As we drive upriver with the canoes we pass through a town. Churches are as frequent along the road here as coffee shops in UK high streets. Every imaginable denomination appears to have a presence from the ‘Fundamental Baptist Church’ to the ‘Amazing Grace Church’. I wonder if the majority of people really see the church in its many guises as offering salvation.

There is significant Chinese development in Zimbabwe. Infrastructure, including airports, are being built or improved. Apparently the Chinese development across Africa is building a new ‘Silk Road’. I am told the Chinese do not mix with the Africans, even to the point of mixed marriage being banned. There are parallels with the European empire building and policies of favouring one nation or ethnicity over another. I wonder though if for the average African views salvation as coming from those who build, develop and repair the infrustucture. The white Europeans have plundered Africa and moved on, are the Chinese seen in a similar vain or are they welcomed for their investment and short term gain regardless of the long term impact?

Canoeing the Zambezi is beautiful and peaceful. What a privilege to paddle down the river between the Zimbabwe and Zambia, traversing from one bank to the other. Observing elephants in the distance up river from where we began, floating down past hippos, crocodile, a wide variety of bird life and vegetation.

The water is warm. The sky was overcast as we began but soon the sun was shining. The weather forecast said 95% chance of rain, so none of us had prepared and worn sunscreen, something we would all come to regret.

Lesson No.3: Wear Sunscreen (whatever the weather looks like it may be like)

Our guides led us safely past the hippos, at a distance we could see their ears, eyes and nostrils above the water level but not too close to be in any danger. A crocodile sunbathing on a bank gave us a surprise as we got a little too close causing it to run and leap into the water betwen a couple of our canoes. It didn’t stop me going for a paddle a little further down river for a break but it was a reminder that we’re not in a zoo but the natural home of some incredible animals.

Lesson No.4: Don’t frighten the wildlife.

The journey back to our current camp was a little damp. The heavens opened and the rains came down. Being in the back of an open safari style vehicle was fun initially but as the wind and rain lashed our faces the excitement turned a little sore. The prepared amongst had coats or towels, even sunglasses were useful for shielding eyes. I was not prepared. There is a choice to make, hide away or embrace the weather. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the immersive experience knowing it would be warm and dry before too long.

Lesson No.5: Be prepared for rain, and if you’re not prepared, embrace the experience.

The sky is amazing. Perhaps especially so in this place and this season, I don’t know. However, the combinations of clouds, sunlight, rain, sunsets are simply breathtaking. As we looked down at the river, the animals, the roads and the vegetation it’s important to look up. Cruising the river in the early evening gave us the opportunity to realise just how bad our sun burn was but also to watch the sun setting. I cannot describe the glory of the sun set. It was magnificent. Our experience did include a river cruise that was very pleasant, but I think watching the sky transform at the close of the day would be just a wonderful sat on the river bank. The most impressive things money cannot buy.

Lesson No.6: Observe the sky.

As we cruised we had an opportunity to chat. We were joined by the head of the All African Theologicam Education by Extension Association (AATEEA). We shared conversations about the opportunities and challenges of ministry and training in Africa. Perhaps most interesting for me was to reflect on the different perspectives of African Christianity. I am most aware of Pentecostal churches and denominations in Africa. I know of the challenges around theologies that encourage financial giving in return for spiritual or even economic blessing. I have friends who speak of corruption within certain churches, often linked to Pentecostal denominations which then gives Pentecostalism a bad man. I am less aware of the Presbyterian churches whose ecclesiology very different and does not focus on giving to recieve blessing. Despite my own experience and knowledge of black majority churches I easily pigeonhole all within a particular style. Whilst there may be similarities in the style of worship there is considerable variety in the content of the worship and the content of the theology. I have a lot to learn.

As the day ended and I went for a wash before bed I encountered a frog in the shower. She let me take her picture then hopped away. I climbed beneath the mosquito net and drifted to sleep.

Lesson No.7: Expect surprises.

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