“What is misery tourism?” you might ask. At its most basic, “misery tourism” refers to the ways peoples from wealthy, usually Western nations “tour” the “developing” or “undeveloped” world in order to “learn” something. The process is almost always attached to an assumption of superiority, whether directly acknowledged or buried in the subconscious. To partake in misery tourism is to justify the superior position of your culture by intentionally subjecting yourself to “lesser” cultures (as a means of justifying the bias embedded in the notion of “lesser” cultures). To put it another way, misery tourism is what (mostly white) Westerners do to make themselves feel better about their own circumstances.
I bring this up because of the following, which is taken from Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s blog post entitled “Broadening the Toolbox Through Cross-Cultural Encounters: On Resnick, Africa, and Opportunity“:
When I spent time volunteering in prisons, I came away telling people that everyone should go and experience that for themselves because “the inmates are a lot more like us than you’d imagine.” For me, it was a scary and yet sobering reminder that human beings no matter their backgrounds, etc. have more in common than different. The same held true of my experiences in other cultures. I tell everyone to visit a developing world country at least once. See for yourselves what you’ve only imagined from the pages of National Geographic or TV specials about starvation, etc. Go there and experience it and be forever changed. If you’re not changed, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t see how you couldn’t be. Don’t fear this kind of change. It’s the good kind–the kind that makes you smarter, wiser, more aware and more appreciative. It’s the kind that makes you a better person and inspires you to write better stories and live better lives. That kind of change can’t be a bad thing, can it?
This appears after Schmidt reminds us how important it is not to fall into the trap of stereotyping other peoples and cultures (by way of getting into their heads to push our boundaries).
Schmidt, unfortunately, falls prey to a number of common intellectual traps when it comes to the subject of the African continent. For example, rather than trying to explore a particular African culture, he reduces them all to “Africans,” as if talking about “Africans” actually means something. He might have identified specific nations (Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Mali, Chad, Sudan, etc.) or specific peoples (Igbo, Sua, Kikuyu, Tutsi, Oromo, Afrikaner, Egyptian, Bemba, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Fulani, Yoruba, etc.), having spent so much time in Africa (says he). But instead, he makes them all one. They are Africans — not in the sense that they are all “from Africa,” but in the sense that they are all more or less the same, like Americans (except we’re not all the same either). Doing so allows him to make grand assumptions about what they are all like (they are communal and find joy in little things). There are other traps, too, but this is, I think, the most obvious and most damaging.
What shocks me most about these statements is that Schmidt wants us to believe he has learned something both from his experiences as a traveler and from reading genre fiction written by people who are non-white, mostly non-Christian, and mostly non-American. Yet in essentializing the plethora of African cultures, as so many people do, he exposes his own narrow view of the continent. I suspect he does not believe this of himself, but most Westerners don’t want to believe that their privilege blinds them to the narratives of neo-imperialism which control the discourse surrounding the African continent. In fact, Schmidt obviously means well, and makes many valid points. But this doesn’t excuse the central problem, which Binyavanga Wainaina perhaps best explores in “How to Write About Africa.” His humorous-but-not-really “story” exposes many of the myths peddled about the African continent. Two quotes of relevance here include:
In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.
Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.
That pretty much sums it up. Becoming better writers is simply a justification for misery tourism. Its only purpose is to validate ethnocentric views of the world and the perpetuation of stereotypes and myths still held by so many Westerners today. I’m not sure there’s a way to combat this behavior, as we’re all guilty of it to a certain degree. One would think education about the history of the various now-countries of the African continent would do it, but that requires people to take the wax out of their ears and actually listen. In other words, so long as you see the African continent as little more than a monolithic culture of inferior peoples, you cannot possibly challenge the ethnocentric assumptions that pepper our cultural perceptions of the world.
That’s not to say genre fiction is hopeless. Far from it. But it’s not enough to say “look, there are some brown people talking about different stuff over there” or “look, I went to Africa and learned stuff, which makes me culturally enlightened.” True respect of other cultures would look beyond the superficial; such a task may be difficult, however, once you realize that the linguistic, cultural, and political toolbox we have all been given in the West participates as much in the colonial project as colonialism in its most visible forms. Perhaps this is why I have trouble finding Western aid, missionary work, and so on anything but suspicious. These acts, like everything else, cannot be disentangled from the colonial project. Just like language, ideology, and misery tourism.