It has been brought to my attention by one of the Travellerspoint moderators that some of you have taken offense at my use of the term ‘Dark Continent’ in the subheading of my blog. While I understand how my use of this term may be misconstrued, I would like to take this opportunity to explain my reasoning behind using the term and outline why its use was in no way designed to offend or inflame people’s sensibilities.
Contrary to what many believe, the term ‘Dark Continent’ was not coined in reference to the complexion of most of Africa’s inhabitants. Rather, it was intended to evoke Africa’s vast, unexplored territory. To westerners in the mid 19th centaury, Sub-Saharan Africa represented one of the earth’s last great unknown tracts of land. Bordered by deserts, much of its interior covered by untamed rainforest and jungle (and the tropical diseases that come with them) and full of fast flowing rivers choked by rapids, exploration in Africa was extremely difficult. In a time when very few people in the West could say with any certainty what lay beyond the impenetrable deserts and jungles, Africa gained notoriety as an obscured, opaque and impermeable (hence ‘dark’) place.
Clearly, this image of Africa is outdated today. Thanks to the wonders of technology and the marvels of modern medicine, all of Africa has been mapped and most of us now have a much clearer understanding of it and its people. Nonetheless, I purposely chose to use the term ‘Dark Continent’ in my blog’s title because I felt that this archaic reference to an unexplored territory most accurately represents my image of Africa before I left Australia. Despite everything I may have seen or read before I left, I still perceived Africa as a mysterious and mystifying place. I was conscious of the fact that I essentially knew nothing about it. Sure, I could tell you the names of the countries and roughly where they were on the map and I had been taught about colinisation and decolinisation at school, but all this was only superficial. Africa still represented the great unknown to me, much like it did to Stanley and Livingstone.
I was ignorant of so much but conscious enough of my ignorance that I determined to enter this once in a lifetime experience with an open mind. I chose to immerse myself in this continent, leave all my prejudices and preconceptions behind and just try and see as much and as many things as possible. I wanted to mimic the explorers of old by diving into this ‘unknown’ head first. I wanted to know the sensation that Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness when he writes "The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness." I wanted to put myself in a situation where I wouldn’t know what lay around the bend but where I was being drawn further and further down the river by the magical things I had already discovered and the enticing possibility of what wondrous things I was still yet to see and learn.
And I did come to know that sensation on a couple of occasions. There were moments when I found myself in over my head, with nowhere to turn but from which I somehow managed to escape and that only fuelled my desire to push on and experience more. And that is the reason why I chose to use an outdated term like the ‘Dark Continent’. Not because my thinking is bigoted or outdated but because I wanted to pay tribute to the generation of explorers whose footsteps I was retracing. I left my friends and family behind just like they did, not knowing what I would find or who I would be when I came out the other side.
Africa is no longer a ‘Dark Continent’ in my mind because what was once a place that I readily associated with war, disease, famine, dictators and AIDS has become an adjective to me for hope, optimism and potential. I learnt so much about the culture and attitude of the African people and in particular, their generosity and kindness. I also saw people working hard to make a better life for themselves and their family and it was these kind of interactions that give me confidence that, although there is still plenty to be done, many more Africans will soon know political stability, personal wealth and genuine happiness.
Some people travel to Africa to volunteer and in fact I met many such people during my travels. I didn’t choose to do this, but instead am now hoping to give back to the people of this continent in a different way. I am hoping that by recounting my experiences I will motivate others to travel to this wonderful part of the world, meet these amazing people and maybe spend a little of their money their while they are at it. I am trying to encourage people to confront their prejudices and overcome the stereotypes that exist by traveling to Africa and seeing what it is like for themselves. I am certainly not trying to offend anyone or promote intolerant views.
Finally, regardless of what I write here I am sure there will be some of you who will continue to find the term ‘Dark Continent’ offensive and who remain unsatisfied by the explanation I have given for using it. That is your prerogative. I believe that we interpret everything we read through the filter of our experiences. That is to say, the life I have lived up until now will affect the way I perceive a word, sentence, essay or even a blog. The word ‘dark’ has multiple meanings. I actually looked the word up in the Merrian-Webster dictionary today and found a definition which describes ‘dark’ as “Not known or explored because of remoteness. As in, the darkest reaches of the continent”. I’d say that that definition sums up my argument pretty succinctly. However, in the interests of full disclosure I should point out that there were a couple of alternative definitions for the word ‘dark’ just above that particular definition. According to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, ‘dark’ can also mean “Lacking knowledge or culture: unenlightened.”; “Relating to grim or depressing circumstances”; and of course, it also means “Not fair in complexion : swarthy”. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide which of the above meanings I was trying to convey by including the words ‘Dark Continent’ in the title of my blog.
Please feel free to share your feelings on the above by leaving a comment below, especially if you feel strongly about this issue or even if you just want to discredit my argument.