Tuesday, January 01, 2008

'No Man's Land'...and 'avoiding ourselves'

Although I seem to spend little time reading books these days, preferring to get most of my text from a screen instead, a stack of international flights over the past few months has provided me with a little space to wade through some of the backlist of titles awaiting reading on my book shelves.

One such tome, left in Tokyo by my mother when she visited last year, was George Monbiot's 'No Man's Land', which I managed to get through over the New Year break.

I know Monbiot more as a Guardian columnist than as a travel writer, but have read (and been inspired by) his manifesto for a world government for the people rather than against them, published as 'The Age Of Consent'.

Having been reading his columns for a number of years and traced some of his development as a writer, it was a pleasure to go back and check out one of his earlier works that was significant in establishing his reputation.

'No Man's Land' was a fascinating read for a number of reasons. Although it focuses much more on Kenya, a country that I have never visited other than a touchdown at Nairobi airport, it does cover quite a bit about Tanzania too, the country where I first came face to face with Maasai people whom are among the subjects of the book. It seems ironic timing to have picked this book up given that Kenya is experiencing extreme strife this week.

First published in 1994, the book is subtitled as 'an investigative journey through Kenya and Tanzania' and exposes how the nomadic peoples of East Africa are being systematically driven off their lands and forced to abandon their lifestyles, even being murdered simply for continuing their non-sedentary ways of life.

It shows how the nation state model does not allow some of the oldest cultures on earth to continue to exist as they have for thousands of years. Shockingly, it also uncovers the fact of conservation and the creation of Africa's great National Parks as having deeply racist undertones, excluding the very people that live in harmony amongst the wildlife.

Aside from the journalistic qualities of the book, I also found it very interesting from the point of view of the writer surrounding himself with people very different from those of his own culture and immersing himself in what he finds.

The passage quoted below was redolent in some ways of my experiences in Tokyo:

'On the steps of the Alakara Hotel in Kitale, a city in Kenya's north-western highlands, was a plump, red-faced white man with brown hair and blue eyes. I was a little suspicious of other wazungu ('tourists' or 'white people' in Swahili, also known as mzungu) in Kenya and, perhaps through some strange inverted racism, kept away from them...Whenever I met a European in Africa, we tended warily to circle each other, like jealous dogs, and pass on without speaking. What wazungu miss by such evasions, at home or abroad, I do not know, but wherever I travel I am reminded that Europeans, myself included, are perhaps the most anti-social of all the world's people.'

There is a tendency when in a place so utterly different from one's own original culture that makes the kind of person Monbiot describes (I too have been guilty of the same thing in the past) purposefully avoid all contact with anyone that might bear some similarity to themselves.

Perhaps it is the desire to revel in one's own 'difference'. Maybe encountering others like us in alien cultures reminds us that we are not quite as special as we are led to feel in such places. It could be a European thing, as I know of many people of Asian origin that specifically seek out others like them when in different cultures, eg Japanese, Chinese or Koreans in the US.

Nevertheless, whatever the reasons behind it, I thought it was curious to see the same experiences encountered amongst the nomadic peoples of East Africa as I've witnessed 'foreigners' doing around the urban Japanese.

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