By Ottla Lange In my first week of studying cultural Anthropology I had been told to write down everything I observe, when in a new or semi-new environment, within the first twenty-four hours. After this short period of time a person starts to become blind for the things that used to catch their eye. Now after travelling through East-Africa for two weeks – to visit the countries where my father, who died in the airplane crash of MH17, had spent most of his time working as an aids researcher – I can say that this could not be more true.
Upon arriving to Tanzania and looking around, I realized the extent to which my short time as an anthropology student had already influenced me, and how it had given a certain shape to my surroundings. Aware of my subjectivity I felt taken away by smells and sounds which became invisible much faster than I liked them to. Its comparable to slowly forgetting a dream, which as you wake up lies at the surface of your memory, but fades as the hours pass. The only difference is that these sounds and smells weren’t really gone. I was simply blinded, and rather than floating above it all, I was standing right in it.
I remember feeling a bit taken away by it all when we arrived. Not because I felt like it was something that I had never seen before, or because I was, so to say, ‘culture shocked’. This was different. It was the strong feeling of not being a part of what I was looking at, and knowing that I never would be, which in a strange way is painful. ‘I felt like a legal alien, an Englishmen in New York’, only in this case a Dutch girl in Africa. A slightly bigger contrast, you might say.
As human beings, I think we like to believe that we are made to adjust, to be flexible, and that we are experts in any kind of situation. Yet when it all comes to it, we are just animals with many habits, all together called culture, which make us who we are. Thus, it is safe to say that even if I would try my hardest, I would never experience life, the way ‘they’ experience it.
Like I mentioned earlier, our journey started in Tanzania, and to be completely honest: it was exactly like I had imagined it to be. The poor people where very poor, the healthcare was very bad (even for the rich), and those who danced, danced amazingly. Nothing in between, and everything in extremes. And because Africa was what I thought it would be, it was easy to take in. As if my expectations were created to help me adjust quickly, and turn an unknown world into something familiar, without me having to put any effort into it.
Our next stop was Kenya. A different country, different people, different landscapes, but still Africa to me. Uganda, however, seemed special: greener, well arranged, with less poverty even. Yet when we went looking for it, this poverty, aids, and early deaths where right around the corner. So still Africa, still what I imagined it would be, only now the expectations had turned into reality. A reality that has become a part of my many memories.
No, I will never experience Africa, nor any other place in the world, like the people who live there originally, but I have seen it, smelled it, heard it, and thus I have experienced the ‘strange’ world where my father has spent so much of his time, and that was all I needed.
Ottla Lange is a first year bachelor student Cultural Anthropology, VU Amsterdam.