Why you shouldn’t walk barefoot in Africa

So Cultural Appropriation is a thing

But how can an average traveller deal with the buzzword?

I am usually very critical about any hashtags and buzzwords. So I decided to write this post in order to show you how a mere mortal like myself can deal with the whole media fuzz. The average person, who doesn’t understand much about politically correct terms but would like to discuss issues without hurting anyone.

The theoretical definition says that cultural appropriation happens when members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group. There is a great video explaining the details and what Katie Perry has to do with it.

I used to have dreadlocks because I liked them.

And when I didn’t like them anymore, I combed them out. In my home country Germany it was strange but accepted to be a white dread head. In Kenya, dreadlocks where associated with thieves, not being trustworthy and even being filthy. This comes from the Mau Mau, a resistance group who bloodily fought against the oppression by British colonialists during colonial times. They are often depicted as a sect, and one of their features were dreadlocks.

laura with dreads

In the US or Jamaica, dreadlocks have different religious or political meanings. People of Colour with dreadlocks were/ are discriminated for having them, while white people with dreadlocks are accepted by society.

If you stay in an African country for a while, you will sooner or later feel in a position to estimate or judge certain things.

You will assume you know how things work. You may be walking barefoot on the countryside like the elder “mamas”, wear the colourful lesos even in town, carry things on your head. You will look very authentic on the photos you are putting up on social media.

dress laughing copy

The problem is: the women walk barefoot because they don’t have money for shoes. If they could choose, they would certainly wear shoes like the majority of people in their country. Sporting a leso in town makes you look ridiculous, at least in Nairobi. Someone wearing a leso is clearly from the countryside and doesn’t understand the formal dress code in the city. Carrying things on your head may look authentic in photos, but you only enjoy it because you don’t have to do it every day. In your home country you will use public transport or your own car to carry things. You have running water coming out of tabs and there’s no need to carry several litres per day on your head.

This is not to blame you or make you feel guilty.

I myself, after several years in Kenya, am learning new things every day. And every now and then, I look ridiculous instead of authentic.

Matters become much more complicated, when you look at Nairobi’s striving middle class who are now taking colourful lesos or kitenge to the local tailor in order to have a modern blazer made from the “traditional” material. Obviously, people in the diaspora keep wearing cultural dresses and are appreciated for it, while people of the same nationality in different places are being stigmatised for it.

And if you volunteered and stayed with Maasai and are given a piece of their bead jewellery, why not wear them? And when to wear them? Only during festive occasions, when the Maasai are appreciated for it? Or also when walking in town, where you will look like a tourist with them? The Maasai themselves will be smiled at and not being taken seriously because they “stick to their backwards culture”.

What we can do is to adapt a certain attitude: that of openness, listening and especially self-reflection. Let’s be aware that whatever we do or wear doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it always happens in a context of culture and power relations.

Do you struggle with Cultural Appropriation? What do you think about it? Let us know in the comments below!

Here is a video turning the topic around and showing how it would look like if other cultures appropriated “white culture” for a party.

This free worksheet will help with all things authentic and your attitude towards other cultures.

It is part of the free online course “My Conscious Trip to Africa” which you can join here.

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