I downloaded the addictive game app, Expedition Africa, to my phone yesterday and was in the middle of navigating my team through murky swamps populated by crocodiles, malarial flies and strange diseases, led by a host of spear-carrying guides, when something came to mind. It was this:
The Expedition Africa game is created by The History Channel and is a companion to the channel's new series "Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone," which is produced by Mark Burnett of "Survivor" fame. The New York Times says of the series:
An eight-part series, "Expedition Africa" follows three men and one woman as they fight heat, snakes and one another to retrace the route that [Henry Morton] Stanley took in 1871 to find the missing explorer [David Livingstone] in the wilds of what is now Tanzania. The 970-mile trek from Zanzibar to the remote village of Ujiji took Stanley almost nine months; the History channel team tries to do it in 30 days.I have not seen the series "Expedition Africa," but from the description, it, like my iPhone game, takes a decidedly colonialist view of the African continent. "Survivor" does this, too, in its use of "exotic" locales. The challenge of these shows involves (mostly white and mostly American) participants enduring life in spaces deemed nearly unendurable by "average" (read: mostly white and mostly American or European) humans. They are about exploring the dark and strange. They are about conquering native flora and fauna (Of course, off the television, it is often about conquering the "natives," too.) If native inhabitants, who "endure" life in the area everyday just fine, show up at all, they are not humans, but merely resources for the Western conquerer's exploration. In the case of Expedition Africa the game: Spear-carrying guides, who you can, by the way, sacrifice to make better time or for food or if you don't have enough medicine to protect all the members of the expedition from those pesky disease-carrying flies--not just resources, expendable resources. It is troubling that this very biased view has become the predominate one, to the exclusion of others that add texture and context and reality to the story of the African continent.
Needless to say, the panoramas and perils of the African interior pale next to the chafing of strong personalities. Like "Survivor," this isn't so much a tour of exotic locales as it is an exploration of the horrors of spending too much time, in too tight a circle, with other people.
These four explorers, experienced scientists and world travelers bait and irritate one another with the kind of venom usually associated with the African puff adder. At times the underlying tension is such that it's a relief that Mr. Burnett didn't elect to duplicate a more drastic expedition — the wreck of the Medusa or the Donner party. Read more...
Even if we accept Stanley and Livingstone's [and Burnett's] view of the African continent as accurate, we must still acknowledge that it is narrow. There are certainly crocodiles, malarial flies and strange [to Westerners] diseases in Africa, but these things--along with war and famine--have come to be our sum understanding of a diverse continent of a billion people, 53 countries and 61 different territories, more than 1,000 languages, myriad cultures and religions; geography ranging from tropical to subarctic, desolate villages and metropolitan commerce centers, such as Cairo, Egypt; Cape Town, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It is not that the colonialist view of Africa is not proved true somewhere, the problem is that it is the only view we ever see and we amplify it to be true of everywhere. Africa is continually judged by the worst it has to offer and reduced to cobbled-together traits that fit cultural and racial biases, while we ignore the hand of the Western world in creating many of the area's problems. (Hmmm...rather like American cities populated mostly by black people) One stupid iPhone game hardly matters in the scheme of things, but Expedition Africa is yet another example of a larger and unchallenged view that DOES matter to Africans and people of African ancestry. A friend once told me, with no irony, that "nothing good ever comes out of Africa." (Apparently, humankind not withstanding.) Don't bits of pop culture like Expedition Africa contribute to this widely-held belief?
Lastly, I am uncomfortable about continuing to celebrate colonialists like Livingstone and Stanley--now that we allegedly "know better." Surely, we must weigh this:
...against this:David Livingstone (19 March 1813–1 May 1873) was a Scottish Congregationalist pioneer medical missionary with the London Missionary Society and explorer in Central Africa. He was the first European to see Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya), to which he gave the English name in honour of his monarch, Queen Victoria. His meeting with H. M. Stanley gave rise to the popular quotation, "Dr Livingstone, I presume?"
Perhaps one of the most popular national heroes of the late 19th century in Victorian Britain, Livingstone had a mythic status, which operated on a number of interconnected levels: that of Protestant missionary martyr, that of working-class "rags to riches" inspirational story, that of scientific investigator and explorer, that of imperial reformer, anti-slavery crusader, and advocate of commercial empire.
His fame as an explorer helped drive forward the obsession with discovering the sources of the River Nile that formed the culmination of the classic period of European geographical discovery and colonial penetration of the African continent. At the same time his missionary travels, "disappearance" and death in Africa, and subsequent glorification as posthumous national hero in 1874 led to the founding of several major central African Christian missionary initiatives carried forward in the era of the European "Scramble for Africa." Read more...
It is men like Livingstone and Stanley (who famously said, "the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision" and who battled accusations of brutal treatment of indigenous guides in his later life) who helped to erradicate myriad African cultures, exterminate African peoples, further global racism, and put African bodies on display (Famously, Sarrtjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman exhibited naked in a cage, after death, her genitals held in a French museum until the 1970s. Or, so-called African "pygmies, such as Ota Benga, exhibited by the New York Zoological Society at the Bronx Zoo, alongside the apes and others in 1906.). In this context, a game based on Stanley's exploits seems horrifying.In the late nineteenth century, the European imperial powers engaged in a major territorial scramble and occupied most of the continent, creating many colonial nation states, and leaving only two independent nations: Liberia, an independent state partly settled by African Americans; and Orthodox Christian Ethiopia (known to Europeans as "Abyssinia"). Colonial rule by Europeans would continue until after the conclusion of World War II, when all colonial states gradually obtained formal independence.
Independence movements in Africa gained momentum following World War II, which left the major European powers weakened. In 1951, Libya, a former Italian colony, gained independence. In 1956, Tunisia and Morocco won their independence from France. Ghana followed suit the next year, becoming the first of the sub-Saharan colonies to be freed. Most of the rest of the continent became independent over the next decade, most often through relatively peaceful means, though in some countries, notably Algeria, it came only after a violent struggle. Though South Africa was one of the first African countries to gain independence, it remained under the rule of its white settler population, in a policy known as Apartheid, until 1994. Read more...
Expedition Africa is still on my iPhone. But damn it if knowing "too much" history makes enjoying this silly game, launched as a marketing ploy by cable network, not so easy.