A Review of “Vexed Ties: Africa in and out of America” in Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa by Kathryn Mathers

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [Chapter 2, Vexed Ties: Africa in and out of America, 41-59]

In Vexed Ties: Africa in and out of America, Kathryn Mathers uses the second chapter of her book, Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa, to further elaborate on, and explore, the ideas of the reversed gaze and African identity construction in American media and popular culture. The chapter is packed with information and examples as she begins to further develop the ‘fixed’ ideas Americans hold regarding Africans and the impact that travel to Africa has on these ideas (p. 49). Mathers links her home nation, South Africa, to America to develop her research interest on the negotiating of identity which occurs when Americans travel to Africa. What she is ultimately attempting to grapple with is the idea of how Africa, and its identity, is constructed in America. Further, she examines how this idea is formed, and how it is challenged and potentially reshaped through travel. As such, Mathers uses this chapter to develop and refine notions of the reversed gaze and African identity constructed in American media and popular culture.

Excerpts from four journal entries of students who embarked on a student exchange to South Africa are provided as epigraphs for this chapter. These writings highlight assumptions and misconceptions that are held by the American students, or their associates, about Africa prior to the students’ departure. More specifically, Mathers mentions, they point to the vexed ties that exist between the nations. The term ‘vexed ties’ is a borrowed concept from the work of Rob Nixon and it refers to a “sense of half-shared histories” between South Africa and America which can lead to “an illusory sense of mutual intelligibility” (p. 41). The shared history mentioned here is one which was established through the Anti-apartheid movement (p. 42). In spite of the shared history between the two nations, however, Mathers notes that South Africa can be, and often easily is, exchanged conceptually by Americans with a generic, homogenous and singular understanding of Africa as a whole.

The concept of gaze plays a large role in the ideas presented in this chapter. Mathers provides several examples of how the colonial gaze has constructed and contributed to the dominant perception that Americans continue to hold about Africa. Many texts from the 17th Century onwards have produced, and perpetuated, unequal power structures where the colonial gaze was used to construct the dominant narrative about the continent while also suppressing the gaze of the colonized (p. 43). Drawing upon these historical constructions, Mathers argues that they continue to inform the perceptions of American travelers to Africa who continue to perpetuate structures of inequality.

The “objects of the tourist gaze gazing back” (p. 43) is another aspect explored by Mathers in this chapter. This reversed gaze confounds the notions that tourists hold, their intentions for travel and their encounters. While power relations may still be unequal, it is through the reversed gaze that expectations can be challenged and more agency can be gained by the objects of the tourist gaze; that is, by Africans themselves. Mathers uses examples of sex tourism in Ghana and Gambia to highlight the nature of relations between the two individuals in an encounter. For the predominantly white European and North American women the encounter is the playing out of a fantasy, the desire to have a romantic encounter abroad. For the men of Gambia and Ghana it is an opportunity to better their social and economic circumstances (p. 44- 45). In this relationship power structures may still be unequal but the reversed gaze of the men helps to “disturb the hegemony of the [tourist] gaze” (p. 45).

The Aids epidemic, famine and civil conflict are images that are recurrent in the news when it comes to Africa. As these issues frequently appear in media representations for many African nations they tend to become conflated with the continent as a whole and thus become interchangeable. The newspaper sources, television programs and exhibitions Mathers draws upon in this chapter all contribute to the image of a broken continent and help to elaborate on the constructed identity of Africa in America. Further, Mathers notes, Americans are driven by a desire to fix these problems and that is part of what compels them to travel to the continent. The author comments that focusing on the problems of Africa often became a dominant theme in the conferences she attended while undertaking her research as well. The notion of a broken continent in need of mending generated a great deal of discussion amongst our class. Several students commented on how we are almost trained to look for misery in Africa because so much of what we see regarding Africa, in the media in particular, pertains to this misery. It has (sadly) become normalized in our understanding of Africa.

As Mathers attempts to take on the enormous task of pinning down what the American construction of African identity is she draws upon evidence provided in major American newspapers and television programs, as well as, materials and subject matter from conferences and exhibitions to make her case. In the introduction to this book the author mentioned that she had failed to determine what her participants’ views on Africa were prior to travelling there and, subsequently, seems to be using the vast amount of information presented in this chapter as the sources, or baseline, for American ideas about Africa (p. 6). The one problem with this, however, is that it is difficult to draw a link between predominant ideas in culture and society and an individual’s beliefs. It is possible that the American travellers who were her participants were highly informed by media representations of Africa, but it is difficult to say what other influences in their life may have also shaped their perceptions on Africa and its nations. As such, a definitive link cannot be assumed. As a child I had likely thought of Africa in much the same way as Mathers has discussed; as a homogenous continent plagued by strife. However, when I was 10 years old there was an exchange student who rode the school bus with me from South Africa. I was surprised to see that he was well-to-do, white and spoke English. This event was one of many in my life which helped to nuance my understanding of the nations of Africa. Similarly, many of the exchange students likely had similar events which informed their perceptions too. As such, Mathers is not wrong in suggesting that the media informs our perceptions, because it does, but she neglects to acknowledge the impact that other life experiences may have as well. This, unfortunately, results in a simplified analysis of  the ‘ideas’ about Africa, and how they may change.

Mathers work in this chapter is quite dense and covers numerous topics throughout its course. Her work is an interesting blend of a post-structural critique of the pervasive media construction of ‘Africa.’ As well as, an ethnographic study of the impact of the travel experience on American beliefs and identity. Although, in Chapter One Mathers asserts that her work is not an ethnography, a portion of her work centers around observing travellers and attempting to understand their experiences and, therefore, appears to be ethnographic (p. 11).

The constructed identity of Africa in American media belies the enormous amount of power that America holds globally, particularly in relation to the nations that comprise Africa. As the power structure between America and African nations are not symmetrical, politically or economically, Mathers adeptly uses media portrayals to expose the nature of these relations. Moreover, this examination points to a larger issue: that Americans wield a great deal of power in determining what Africa is, who Africans are, and ultimately what Africa’s purpose is. The historical inequality of power relations are perpetuated as Americans continue to look for what Africa can do for them. In the modern context, Mathers argues, there is a desire to develop a sense of purpose and charity as they try to fix the problems which they perceive plague the continent; an endeavour which touches on aspects of post-colonialism in addition to post-structuralism.

Mathers’ attempt in her research to articulate the formulation and transformation of an idea is a very interesting one; and a formidable undertaking. She questions what happens when travelers, tourists and students embark on a journey to Africa and find that their ideas about the continent, and their intended experiences there, are being challenged and contested by the reality of life in these places. Further, she asks how this challenge might shape, or reshape, the individual’s identity. This is a big research question, and these are big ideas to take on. As a result, Mathers work can come across, at times, as somewhat convoluted. Nevertheless, I am curious to see how the ideas of individual participants will be transformed. I look forward to seeing how Mathers’ research will develop in subsequent chapters, and how challenges to constructed identities will potentially shape and affect the individual holder of the belief.


Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.[Introduction, 1-10]

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [Chapter 1, Moving fieldwork: Traveling with Americans to and from Africa, 11-41]


One thought on “A Review of “Vexed Ties: Africa in and out of America” in Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa by Kathryn Mathers

  1. These issues are also relevant to anthropologists in their own ethnographic encounters. I am struck by how similar the discussions are with respect to encounters that solidify, challenge, or reshape the identity of the traveler, whether that traveler is a tourist or an anthropologist, and the assumptions one brings to bear in such encounters.

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