A Fun and Mostly Useful Pre-Conversation About Africa
People tend to have the same stereotypes about popular places.  When non-Californians think of California, they typically think of sunshine, beaches, Hollywood, maybe Silicon Valley. If they’re old enough, they might think about the Summer of Love. If they’re young enough, they might think about throwback Snoop videos. 
But if you live in Modesto, or Bakersfield or Somewhere Most People Haven’t Heard Of, none of those ideas reflect your reality, so when you’re talking to a non-Californian you have to be clear that you’re an average, run-of-the-mill Californian: well, no, I don’t go to the beach all that often. Why? Because I don’t live close to one; Google’s headquartered about 40 miles south of where I live, but I’ve definitely driven by the campus a few times on the way to work; actually, you should probably pack an umbrella because it’s going to rain here all summer. After these reality checks, the conversation usually gets a little easier.
Things get interesting when you apply this idea to Africa, because the amount of reality checking you have to can become absurd. When I talk about Nigeria, for example, I know that at some point I’ll have to explain where Nigeria is, how it came into existence, double-check to make sure you’re not thinking of Niger or Cameroon, triple-check to make sure you’re not thinking of Ghana, and then explain why Babatunde or Remi still sends you those emails. 
You need these “pre-conversations” to give your story a clean slate. Otherwise, you’ll end up having two different conversations at the same time – as you’re describing a cute story that happened in Cape Town, whoever you’re talking to is thinking about the documentary they saw on Darfur a few weeks ago. That’s awkward for everyone.
The problem is that when you talk about Africa, there’s usually no one from Africa, or who’s lived in Africa, to set the stage for the conversation: you know, the lions are a little further east, not exactly in Lagos. So those pesky stereotypes never actually go away.
That’s not happening on Gym Socks and Minibuses. In the spirit of useful pre-conversation conversations, let’s get the stereotypical perspectives of Africa out-of-the-way first:
There are no people living in Safari Africa, only animals roaming, always majestic, mating and playing and just being really cute and amazing, in general. It’s the last true frontier of the animal kingdom. Epic animal battles happen everywhere. The sky is wide and the sunsets are long and purple and if you go, you’re going to take the kinds of pictures that someone back home will eventually put in a scrapbook.
If there are people in Safari Africa, they’re evil poachers, or selfless preservationists or adventurous safari-ers. Because it’s so wild there, they need lots of unnecessary but seemingly useful crap, like multi-pocketed khaki vests. And everyone seems to get around in the same brown Land Rover.
Adventure oozes through this Africa; it’s the best place for kayaking, shark diving, rock climbing and many other extreme activities you probably could have done closer to home, but just seem cooler to do in Africa.
Old School National Geographic Africa (OSNGA)
(H/t Africa Is a Country)
In OSNGA, no one lives in neighborhoods or communities. They live in “tribes.” People don’t have simple disagreements about property or land. They conduct “tribal warfare.” In OSNGA, they might do things that offend our delicate Western sensibilities, like hunt for their own food or have polygamous marriages, so we shake our heads and think “backward” or “savage.” Or, gasp, “uncivilized.”
All OSNG Africans wear “exotic and elaborate costumes.” Their names have too many vowels. Women walk around with their breasts exposed (more gasps). Essentially, it’s the Africa that every literate colonialist wrote a book about: the animal bone wearing, spear chucking, black magic channeling, mud hut dwelling Africa.  And, as you can see below, we eat this shit up.
Horrific Things Happen All The Time, Everywhere Africa
We see this stereotype everywhere, which is probably why it’s the first idea that comes to mind when most people think of Africa. There are the Save the Children commercials with closeups of the kids with bulging eyes and swollen bellies and flies circling their heads, like vultures. In September, the two most popular news stories about Africa involved a sunken ferry off the coast of Tanzania that killed hundreds and a pipe explosion in Kenya that killed more than a hundred people. Determined canvassers lurk outside Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, listing figures about AIDS babies and youth literacy rates and asking you if you care about children before you, with a smile, say
sure, how much do you need? sorry, I don’t really have time now. And you keep walking. Most of the time, we all keep walking.
One of the reasons people keep walking is that we’ve become desensitized to Horrific Things Happen All The Time, Everywhere Africa. It’s a natural reaction, an act of self-preservation. How often can any normal person have their heart-broken?
But, strangely, there’s voyeuristic factor, too. I’d guess 8 out of every 10 news stories, movies or television specials about Africa involves Horrific Things Happen All The Time, Everywhere Africa. It’s like we see Africa as a gory scene from a horror movie; we can’t not watch, so we put our hands over our eyes and peak through our fingers.
I read the cover of a book the other day which argues that Americans have made “saving Africa” part of our national identity.  That is, we use Africa’s problems to help us understand who we are and what we value.  It made perfect sense. It’s the reason so many people go to Africa and have the same I-went-to-Africa-and-came-back-so-grateful-for-what-I-have reflections.  Or, if you’ve read enough travel articles, you’ll see a million versions of the same wow-they’re-so-happy-even-though-they-are-so-poor-!!! stories. Africa, with all of its miserable reminders, constantly reassures us that America is the greatest country in history of the world.
And that, friends, is pretty much where Gym Socks and Minibuses comes in. I’m capturing a unique perspective on what’s happening in Africa, with a specific focus on the people, places, music, art, food, technology, movies, and lifestyles that we don’t usually get to see.
There’s nothing better than discovering new things about a place you thought you knew. And that’s the whole point of this trip, really.
I hope you come along for the ride!
1. This mostly applies to large cities, or if the city/state/country has some kind of memorable art structure, cultural event, or historical significance. My hometown, Union City, doesn’t have any of that and usually doesn’t elicit strong reactions of any kind.
2. Every generation has a signature cultural moment, an event/movie/song that accurately captures the mood of the time. The March on Washington, Woodstock, Miracle on Ice, etc. This generation already has two: the Obama Inauguration and the moment Facebook opened up uncomfortable social networking to the whole world.
3. A quick nod to the callous ingenuity of Nigerian 419 scams. Some estimates say these scams have duped unsuspecting investors out of billions (with a b). Crazy.
4. If you think that stuff is funny, you’re going to LOVE this.
5. I would buy the book too, if it weren’t $80. I didn’t even know people sold $80 non-textbook books any more.
6. How long have you heard the “You shouldn’t waste your food when there are children in Africa starving” line? I’m pretty sure my mom used it on me when I was a kid.
7. Also the thesis of most of my personal statements when I applied to college.