TravelSocial Issues

The African Experience

I was enjoying an evening at one of Kampala’s many coffee shops last week, while waiting for the night bus to Kigali. The cream-of-mushroom soup was the perfect remedy for my rumbling stomach, a hot and soothing reminder of the comforts of home.

“I feel so weird being here right now,” my friend said to me.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean, we’re in Africa,” she responded, “and this is like a Starbucks or something.”

I could see her point. This coffee shop was at the entrance to Kampala’s Garden City Mall. It had a vast list of speciality coffees, and gourmet sandwiches, and a variety of milkshakes and smoothies that would make anyone hungry. She was right, this coffee shop was incredibly similar to Starbucks, and countless independent coffee shops that were so popular in Canada.

Chai from Java House Cafe

Chai from Java House Cafe

I just smiled, but what she said stuck with me. This was Africa. This coffee shop, this mall, this city, was in the middle of Africa. I don’t blame her for being surprised. “Africa” is portrayed by the media, magazines, newspapers, movies, even travel companies and volunteer organizations as an exotic place, jam packed with wild animals, poverty, and laughing children with bare feet. According to these sources, it is a place where people sing and dance and drum, and kill chickens to thank you for visiting – they are poor and simple and happy.

Of course, this exists. I’ve witnessed the killing of many chickens, and the drums have often kept me awake at night.

But there are also cable companies and upscale restaurants with dress codes and invitations. The cities boast fine dining options with extensive wine lists and chefs trained in Paris and New York. They are frequented by the growing middle class, as well as government officials and expats and tourists. Just because you find yourself in a continent where poverty and disease is often rampant, and horrific civil wars are sometimes in the populations’ recent memory, it does not mean you should not go out there and enjoy the luxuries of city life.

Eating mushroom soup and drinking a chai latte in a coffee shop in Kampala is as much the African experience as long drops and ugali. It just may not be the African experience you were expecting. 


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