The burden of knowing too much history

If, as a westerner, you are going to visit Africa, the earlier in your life you do it, the better

A pretty, earnest young woman came up to me at the end of an African talk I recently chaired at the Royal Festival Hall. She wanted some advice. She had organised a trip to Rwanda with a group interested in development, but was experiencing some misgivings. Was she doing the right thing?

Absolutely, I answered, assuming she was worried about security. Eastern Congo, just across the border, might have fallen prey to rampaging militias, but rigidly policed Rwanda, Africa's version of Singapore, was a different matter. She should do the sensible thing, of course, and read the Foreign Office travel advis ory, but I doubted there was cause for concern.

No, security wasn't the issue. Puzzled, I hazarded another guess. Had someone sold her the familiar "tourists come and go but the locals never see any of the profits" line? It was one that I rejected, I said. They might not be immediately visible to the passing visitor, but the spill-off benefits of the tour industry went deep. Yet it seemed we were still talking at cross-purposes. "I've just been wondering," she said, "whether or not it's a morally appropriate thing to do."

I am still baffled as to what, precisely, was bothering this nice woman. Did she feel it was tasteless to act the tourist in a country that went through a genocide 14 years ago? Well, some might find visiting Rwanda's memorials en route to the mountain gorillas surreal, but slapping an economic boycott on a traumatised nation seems more like punishment than empathy.

I suspect she was simply giving expression to classic western liberal unease over the gaping north-south divide. Even before flying in, she could imagine what it would feel like to be sitting in her Land Cruiser, a carefully moisturised, well-fed, urban white woman, watching a skinny Rwandan peasant hoeing his plot in the sun. He would probably be sweating, the kids would certainly be snotty, and someone would probably beg for money. And she cringed.

The conversation confirmed an opinion that has crystallised over the past few years: if, as a westerner, you are going to visit Africa, the earlier in your life you do it, the better. By the time you are in your twenties, your head is so stuffed with preconceived opinions, mostly of the ethic ally self-flagellating variety, you can barely see, let alone interpret, what is going on outside you.

I suspect my earnest young woman felt that the only "appropriate" way to interact with Africa was to roll her sleeves up and start hammering a wall into place or digging a latrine. That is certainly what most British politicians do when they go to Africa. The charities that organise student gap years also seem to regard building schools in Vietnam and digging wells in Malawi as the best use of their volunteers' time. It's bizarre, when you think about it. The one thing the developing world has a surplus of is physical labour. Africans cut grass, dig ditches, lug wood and build shacks with a speed and skill that make western city-dwellers look like the ham-fisted, overeducated sophisticates they are. So why offer what is already there in abundance? Why rob the locals of the wages?

In stark contrast, consider the response of my 16-year-old niece, who just came with me on a fortnight's trip to Kenya and Tanzania, her first to Africa. I feared that already we might have left it too late. In fact, we got the timing just about right. She knew nothing about colonialism - it seems not to feature on the British history syllabus. She had no inkling of western culpability; nor had she imbibed the Oxfam and Christian Aid lessons on debt relief and trade reform.

She felt no ancestral guilt, no contorted need to compensate for the sins of her forefathers. Her questions and comments had the unmediated directness of someone genuinely looking, rather than telling themselves what to see.

"Gosh, if you're white here you really can't blend in" (as eyes swivelled to clock our arrival in an Arusha marketplace); "Maasais are really annoying" (after a series of over-pushy sales pitches from Rift Valley herdsmen); "Are all Kenyan policemen corrupt?" (after negotiating six highway roadblocks); and "Mangoes taste completely different here".

There was also, it has to be said: "I don't think I like having my things carried for me," harbinger of the guilt complex to come.

Later - I hope there will be a later - she can ponder where she stands on the legacy of empire and the thorny challenge of poverty alleviation. She will come to worry about how much to tip, fear she is sounding patronising, and smile far too much. But, at least, underneath all that new self-consciousness will lie a bedrock of spontaneity, unfiltered by received opinion.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games