Many Africas begins
Today brought home to me that it really is time to begin publishing some of the material I have gathered for this website. But first, the origin story, featuring a real-life superhero. He would have been 100 today. It was while watching Nelson Mandela's funeral on December 15th 2013 (I just googled it - how could it be that long ago?) at my desk at a former employer's that I found the name for this site. A state of mind best summed up as "why am I trying to please these unpleasable clowns?" mingled with memories of being in South Africa in 1994, and of many trips since, up and down the east and south of the continent. A sadness at the passing of a great man, and a sense of the vitality, hope and joy I felt in 1994, and always feel in Africa (and not just because I'm usually on holiday, I hope - working and living there has had the same effect). I cried my eyes out. It was sleep deprivation, stress, but also relief, at a glimpse of a new sense of purpose. This is what a mid-life crisis feels like, I thought at the time, but I was probably depressed too, and angry at myself for where I was professionally.
And here we are, nearly 5 years on. I carried on working for the same people for another 18 months, and they remained unpleasable (it was them, not me, I swear!), but I minded less and less. I stopped teaching for a while and started writing and editing again. I wrote another travel book on Mexico without going there, having done the same in 2003. It was commissioned by a Mexico-based friend, who had based his own website on Mexico on my first book. This is how travel writing often works these days (beware the top 10 list!). I do recycle, but am doing my level best to avoid this on Many Africas (my top 10 lists will be kosher, I swear).
So what is this website? It's a travel site, featuring interesting* places run by people doing incredible things, both socially and environmentally, on a variety of scales, in rural, urban and wild Africa, starting with a few places in Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa. It is an invitation to travel there (well, an exhortation, really, but hopefully not too earnest), and connect, really connect, with people, landscapes and nature. It is full of places which can adequately, sometimes extravagantly, demonstrate that they are far more than a first-world mothership floating above a landscape, drawing only what they need from its people. It is hardly controversial to say that, in the areas featured on this site, government is often overstretched, sometimes bad, and cannot provide the things you might expect it to. It is equally true that tourism can make a positive difference in this regard.
When writing a guide book to accommodation (www.greenwoodguides.com - I recommend it, though some of the text has not changed much since I wrote it, while the places have - email me if in doubt about somewhere) in South Africa a long time ago, I used to ask "what are you doing for Black Empowerment?". It is heartening but not really surprising that many of the businesses which most comprehensively answered that question (training, career progression, healthcare, whole-community uplift and involvement in education and conservation) have grown into some of the best-loved places to visit in the country. They have a real energy to them, a sense of purpose and human warmth which simply have to be experienced. So I will be promoting them.
I am aware that there is a possible conflict of interest in this, given that I hope to make money from it all, eventually, but I do promise to avoid joining in with any 'greenwashing' (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing) and whatever its corporate social responsibility equivalent is, by telling the whole story of a place, as honestly as possible. In any case, I also believe that the way African travel is marketed is wholly outdated. The Big Five is a conceptual hangover from hunting safaris - I like the grumpy old bastards, but is a buffalo really more exciting than a cheetah, a giraffe or an elephant shrew? And there is genuine wilderness across the continent, but it exists alongside human population pressures which will only increase if the humans themselves are not invested in their preservation, and will probably do so anyway, even if they are, given projected growth rates. We are headed for a wildlife archipelago in Africa, and the best case scenario is that these islands of wilderness are linked together by wildlife corridors, and maintained as large as possible by people who see the benefit of doing so, and who can grow to love, or do already, their animals. The worst case scenario really doesn't bear thinking about. So I urge you to travel to some of the places featured here, and contribute to both their preservation and their human development.
*Well, I think so.