Perhaps it’s just me, but one of things I most want to encounter on a safari is “differentness.” I’m not simply after more of what I get at home, which is why things like sleeping in a tent, or under the stars, or trying new foods are so appealing. So it’s no surprise that experiencing a different culture is one of the most rewarding things you can do in Africa. And yet, the term “Cultural Tourism” has a hollow, almost oxymoronic, ring to it. It raises expectations of exploring a culture in depth, but all too often it only scratches the surface. Visiting cultural centres, or watching staged performances, may be entertaining and make good commercial sense. But in the same way that watching the changing of the guards probably tells you less about British culture than an hour in a supermarket, this perhaps isn’t the best way to reveal anything particularly meaningful. Ultimately there is no getting away from the fact that this is theatre…and you’re the audience. But of course, if you aren’t after theatre, and you don’t have much time, you have to accept the flip side. Which is that people are people. If you turn up on a day when no body feels like hunting, dancing or circumcising, things might seem a little pedestrian. So the question is how, in only a few days, can you gain an insight into the way a culture works? Short of setting off on your own and simply moving in with a “Tribe” - Bruce Parry style - it’s not easy. But spending a few days in a small camp, which runs in conjunction with a community is a great way to begin. Many small camps across Africa now work closely with local villages. Training staff and guides from the community and employing them to work in the camps. The great thing about this is that you can overcome the performer / audience thing. You get the chance to meet people properly (including your guide), over time, to ask questions and to be asked questions and – in my experience this is far more revealing than any organized event. For me a particularly memorable day was a walk with San guides in the Northern Kalahari in Botswana. We had no language in common, and while they were friendly to a fault, thankfully they we’re far too busy chatting amongst themselves to pay too much attention to us. What followed was a decidedly low key meandering ramble through the bush, casually harvesting snacks; roots, berries and some (understandably) rather perplexed looking beetles. The walk culminated in building a fire (no matches of course) and cooking the hapless beetles (we weren’t offered any). The men who took us then spent the best part of half an hour playing something, which looked and sounded like Rock-Paper-Scissors. But to me, this is where the interest lies. Time and again when I’ve met people with a life experience so dramatically at odds with my own, the thing that really stands out is not so much the differences, but the things which it seems we have in common. Watching the San playing rock paper scissors, and howling with laughter every few minutes when some one was caught out, you didn’t need a common language to see that at the very least, slapstick is something that transcends cultural boundaries. Hardly an anthropological revelation, but an unusual way to spend an afternoon. You should try it.
Posted by: Alex