Call me unconventional, but my first stop in Africa isn’t Egypt. The Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, I’m sure they’re somewhere on my list, but they don’t make the first cut. Africa is so different from the rest of the world. The continent has been through so much turbulence over the years—civil wars, genocides, mass poverty, famine—much of which has been caused intrusion, dominance, and vacuum caused by the West. Despite all of this, the vibrance of the cultures on the continent has remained intact.
1) South Africa
For a long time I didn’t know much about South Africa. I knew the dark segregated past of the country. And yet, despite its past, the nation seems so peaceful. South Africa is one of the few nations that has successfully moved past its civil wars and segregation. It took years of violence for there to be peace, but citizens have finally been able to bring together and meld the cultures of the two peoples. It’s so rare to have a success story like South Africa. And besides, who wouldn’t want to walk in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela.
I’ve always envisioned Tunisia as being particularly unique. There’s considerable European influence in much of the country, brought in by Roman conquest. But, the ruins of the great city of Carthage would probably be my first stop. Not only was Carthage one of the great trading cities in the world, a city that many civilizations wanted for its location, but it was also built by the Phoenicians. They were one of the earliest peoples to develop a written alphabet. In many ways it was the precursor to many of the great cities today and the pinnacle city for much of the world’s history.
Everyone I know who has been to Morocco has ridden a camel. I don’t particularly want to ride a camel. But, I do want to go to Morocco. It has been able to preserve many of its historic districts, including many structures dating back to the 12th century. As a result of being occupied by so many different countries and cultures Morocco has developed its own unique culture by mixing and matching all the different components: Arab, Jewish, French, Spanish. And besides you can only say you’ve been to Marrakesh and Casablanca if you’ve been to Morocco.
4) Zambia and Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls, straddling the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The mist from the mile long falls can be seen for miles. Many people choose to take it in by plane, getting a sweeping aerial view. But, I’ve heard there are grueling hiking trips that can also provide rewarding views. (After all Dr. Livingstone didn’t have a plane when he became the first European to set eyes on Victoria Falls). Aside from the falls, both nations offer incredible scenic experiences, with some of the highest concentrations and quantities of wildlife. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to photograph Victoria Falls and Elephants in the same day?
Malawi has some incredible views of wildlife. But, for those more interested in learning about culture and socioeconomic problems of the world, there’s a lot to offer. Malawi is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 poorest countries in the world, with more than half of the population living on less than $1 a day. The nation is continually plagued by drought and famine, but the people move forward, they struggle through their lives and enjoy the little moments. The vibrance of their culture continues.
Ethiopia was one of the first countries to adopt Christianity as the national religion. The Amhara region contains Christian ruins from the 12th and 13th century. Though the reason is unknown, the churches were built below ground, all different sizes, shapes, and styles interconnected through a series of tunnels. Many of the churches are still in use today. Regardless of your religion it would be amazing to have a chance to step inside at 12th century church built underground.
Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa and one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Like Mount Everest in Nepal, I’d never get caught climbing it, but I still want to go to Tanzania and see it. Juxtaposing the tallest mountain on the continent, the country is also home to Lake Tanganyika, who’s bed is the lowest point in Africa. I’ve heard that with its mountains and lakes and its conservations and reserves Tanzania is potentially the most beautiful nation in Africa. That’s what I’ve heard. And my camera is waiting hop on the opportunity.
My first exposure to Uganda was through Invisible Children a documentary about child soldiering. It seems strange that a person would want to go to a nation with knowledge that children are often kidnapped from their homes in the middle of the night and turned into “killing machines,” but that is just another layer of Africa that I want to peel back and dig into to understand. I don’t just want to understand, I need to understand how and why anyone can justifiably arm 9-year-old children and teach them to kill innocent people.
Uganda may be the perfect place to go to begin understanding many of the struggles across the continent. It’s been plagued by dictatorships and power vacuums. By leaders coming in and beginning genocides. Idi Amin, may be the best known, but he wasn’t alone. The problems in Uganda aren’t problems that Uganda alone is faces, they’re problems that many nations, once under Western rule face. It’s a place to see the true impact of incessant war on peoples lives, even if actually understanding the reasons is impossible.
Human rights violations aside, there are also gorillas in Uganda. Next to hippos they’re perhaps one of the most dangerous animals on the continent, but I still want to die being able to say I saw a wild gorilla and lived to tell about it.
When I was growing up everyone who went to Africa went to Kenya. People hear that Kenya’s economy is stronger than many other Africa nations, but they receive a shock when they arrive to learn that the nation is still suffering from the impact of poverty and disease. It’s still considered a developing nation. Kenya may not be as safe as it was 10 years ago, but it’s a good place to begin to learn and understand some of the world’s poorest living conditions.
I want to visit at least one Western African country, unfortunately there’s consistent upheaval with ever shifting power in many nations. Ghana, however, has remained relatively stable. I’ve heard from several people, that Ghana is one of the best places to take your first trip to Africa.
There are numerous other countries across Africa I would go to in a heartbeat, but the constant shifts in political power and on-going civil wars have held them off my list. Determining where is safe to visit is always a concern.
Without trying to seem condescending or self-righteous, I want to go to Africa to help people. I want to find a way to stop the droughts, to stop the poverty, to stop the disease, to the stop the wars, death and violence. That’s the side of Africa most people see. They see the dangers and the poverty. But, there’s more to Africa than that. There’s more to each African nation than that. Amidst everything, their cultures and traditions are flourishing.
Despite good intentions, so often the Western world doesn’t realize the fine line between developing a nation and desecrating a culture. There’s so much good that can be done across the continent to limit poverty, to raise the socioeconomic status of the people. But, we have to understand that improving standards of living doesn’t have to mean Westernization. It can be building roads and improving drinking water. It can be increasing access and availability to health care. It can be brokering peace and taking a stand to end the mass slaughtering of entire peoples. Those improvements, that involvement, doesn’t have to involve tearing down and uprooting entire cultures to build a McDonald’s. But, it also means not standing on the sidelines when we can have an impact. If we’re to truly understand what needs to be done, we need to go. We need to learn the history of the continent, the regions, the nations and the peoples. We need to see the conditions and experience the cultures. We need to hear from them what they want and need.