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February 27, 2008

Eyes Wide in South Africa

Posted in: Africa,Race

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Greetings from South Africa! I’m here at the first ACM conference held on the continent (DIS 2008) to present my work on games in virtual worlds (paper). You know I had to come. And let me tell you, it’s been an eye opening experience.

South Africa is a fascinating place — a mix of backgrounds from African to European to Malay, and so many more. Gorgeous rural landscapes punctuated by massive cities. New ideas everywhere the eye looks: clothing, food, advertising, architecture. 11 official languages (but, thankfully, pretty much everyone speaks English).

I mean, I’ve been to Africa before but being in a place where you can easily communicate really changes your perspective. In fabulous Senegal, I could pick up affect in French and Wolof but it’s a different thing entirely to be able to have a conversation and start to find out who people really are. I got to it.

At first blush, Cape Town seems to recovered remarkably in the years since the end of apartheid in 1994. I’ve seen less job segregation here than I did in Atlanta, for example. But peak behind the scenes (or, in my case, behind the wheel of a tour van) and that painful history starts to creep back in — from a tourguide’s inadvertent and unfortunate commentary on “informal settlements” to the clear lingering class distinctions between white, colored, and black in housing as we traveled the countryside and walked through city neighborhoods. We’re told anyone can live anywhere now, but that’s clearly bound by income and the end of apartheid did not magically re-distribute the money. And it didn’t re-distribute long held prejudices, either.

It was interesting to see fear in the faces of some well traveled folks making their first trip to Africa. Would they be robbed? Would the infrastructure be falling apart? Would the plane fall out of the sky? It was nice to see those fears evaporate when we hit the ground. (I’m sure checking in to hotels like the opulent and insane Extreme Sports Hotel didn’t hurt, either.)

Somehow, though, I didn’t have the same fears coming in. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been to Africa before. It’s not the naive notion that Africa is one country but rather that, to me, simply being back on the continent — anywhere on the continent — feels a lot like coming home. Being African American can do that to you.

For more on African roots, see Are You Sure You’re Black?

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