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Memories of Africa

Is there really such a place as Africa? The question came up constantly as I backpacked across the continent for a year.

Saying you’ve been to Africa is a bit like saying you’ve been to Asia. Was that Southeast Asia? Thailand? Vietnam? Or China? Perhaps you ate sushi in Tokyo? Or grilled kebabs in Georgia?

Mine was an Africa of preconceptions, of humid heat and rural herds, of thick forest and arid savannah. There was that, of course, but there was also so much more.

Nothing had prepared me for the chill of a winter landing in Cape Town in mid-July, in shorts and sandals, watching my breath curl. I had known the seasons would be reversed, but freezing? In Africa? It was fitting that my first purchase on the continent was a pair of long underwear.

I spent the next year crisscrossing this giant, learning about the ancient civilizations of Zimbabwe and the colonial histories of Mozambique and Kenya, the unique cultures of Ethiopia and Eritrea and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Musicians in Senegal

Making music in southern Senegal

In Uganda I found a country that reminded me of Switzerland, its neat, well-aligned rows of crops and its law-abiding culture, a country in which I wasn’t allowed to stand on a long-distance bus because it was… illegal. In Kenya, just over the border, I found the opposite, an unsettling anarchy where circumventing laws was a skill in itself.

Ethiopia seemed an Africa apart, slices of history turned towards the Middle East and a Church tied to Judaism and early Christian Orthodoxy. In some coastal areas East Africans, Indians and Arabs mingled to create a bright new world.

Some nations were so huge they defied the very notion of country. Nigeria could flirt with a rural caravan of northern nomads as easily as with intellectual literary salons of the great southern urban agglomerations, all within its borders.

In South Africa cultures bumped into one another the same way. The buzzing diversity of Cape Town, the edginess of Johannesburg, the Dutch heritage of Stellenbosch – and the shebeens of the townships, the Victorian homes of British families that hadn’t changed in a century, the pioneering Afrikaner, the might of the Zulu – all sharing 11 official languages in dozens of landscapes into which either France or Texas could fit twice.

The Maghreb, or North Africa, is geographically part of the continent but arguably more closely tied to the Mediterranean, with which it shares culture and climate, or the Middle East, with which it shares religion and language.

So yes, Africa, the geographical land mass, does of course exist. But Africa as ‘Africa’, that homogenous continent glued together in my naive mind turned out to be, to my delight, an extensive collection of diversities. Not even a year was enough.

This post is part of the #Indie30 challenge – 30 Days of Indie Travel, by Bootsnall.

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