A Review of “Back to Nature: American’s Great African Adventure” 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 3, Back to Nature: American’s Great African Adventure, 61-88]



The title’s composition ‘Back to Nature: American’s Great African Adventure’ sets out the main idea of the third chapter which revolves around an apparently simple hypothesis. This chapter conveys the idea that mediated representations of Americans’ diverse encounters with Africa seem to be reduced to experiencing a sort of primitive (natural) way of being. Such an imagined construction is supported by American travelers’ thrill of seeking an exotic (wild) adventure that is being institutionalized by student programs and other Peace Corps missions. Yet the emphasized point throughout the text is that young American travelers to South Africa fulfill generalized expectations on ‘the newly ascribed’ role of saving Africa or doing good to Africans. More specifically, young traveler students to South Africa are likely to have a more profound awareness and realization of their American identity during their sojourn as a result of their encounter with the South African ‘other’. Yet it is not clear enough in the chapter how such a liminal experience of temporarily dwelling in South Africa suddenly awakens national sentiments of being American.  It is of primary importance to convey the idea that the author derives such conclusions based on her intensive ethnographic research back home in South Africa. But it is never sure whether the conducted interviews were used to confirm a priori ideas or hypotheses that need to be investigated further, or that such contentions came to life based on the fieldwork experience. The style of writing in the text, like its driving ideas, is pregnant with imagery and metaphors at times. The strategic employment of such figures of speech enables her to explore new terrains of assumptions on American traveling identity amid unequal contexts of power relations between the two countries.

The chapter opens up with carefully chosen remarks on Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. It is located somewhere in Florida. A space that is designed to represent the prevailing stereotypes and generalizations on the African continent. Visitors are actively involved in the consumption of such journeys provided that Disney’s staging corresponds to the expectations on how an ‘imagined Africa’ is constructed and embodied. In the contemporary ‘society of the spectacle’ in which one dwells the practice of creatively producing a show or an atmosphere to entertain spectators, to share and enhance different ways of perceiving and thinking of the world artistically and/or intellectually, and to eventually generate financial benefits is ubiquitously accepted and encouraged. In the context of culture, rather than art, some sets of travelers tend to develop a tendency to be curious about other ways of being in other far away geographical localities. The continent of Africa, like other continents, has its fair share in attracting all categories of travelers including students in exchange programs, International experts in development, anthropologists, tourists etc.

Accordingly, having recourse to metaphors to loosen the directness of the contentions regarding how American young travelers conceive of Africa and its people, and more specifically South Africa, can be an efficient strategy. But to what degree such an approach is useful in anthropological writing? The first metaphor consists of transposing the experience of visiting Disney World’s Animal Kingdom and attributing its qualities to actual traveling of American students to South Africa with the support of various educational exchange programs. In other words, transposing the conclusions of an article in New York Times to pave the way to further analysis on the construction and realization of the American identity according to orchestrated meditations is an issue that needs further clarifications . According to the article, and thanks to the explanations of Kathryn Mathers, Disney world represents Africa as a continent in which animals are imprisoned in the limited provided geographical space. Density of such living species is a crucial characteristic of such a place. Yet these animals, which are part of nature and the landscape, happen to give the impression that they are free to roam only within the borders of the provided space rather than across it. There are different kinds of species, but for some technical reasons Kiswahili is used as the language of communication in the site. Hence Africa is being represented homogeneously as a land in which African peoples and African animals and African landscape are grouped together to portray the genius work of nature. Are the expectations of Americans quite essentialist to the extent of blurting out such an objectification?

 The author appears to be quite comfortable in asserting the blurry lines between different species, whether human or not, which occupy this geographical locality. Without any statistical, historical or theoretical contextualization, to introduce and explain the motivation behind such a venture, Africa is conceived of by Americans as being bestowed with an animal character. The fact that Kathryn Mathers doesn’t assert her position explicitly regarding the construction of such mediated representations is rather confusing. The prose stylistically urges serious questions while resuming the practice of reading. What is the point of lingering so much on such mediated representations while opting for neutrality and a refusal to take sides?     Explication of both of the concepts of nature and culture is overlooked to dwell on the idea that South African culture and society is conceived of by American travelers a priori through mediated representations. I do understand the importance of scrutinizing the policies of American media in relation to a construction of an American identity especially when it is embedded in unequal political representations. But I do not fathom the implicit rationale behind portraying such an intriguing zoo image on South Africa and its people specifically. In addition, I was wondering whether ‘the unequal mediated discourses between Africa and America’ as explained by the anthropologist Kathryn Mathers are being amplified further by the opted for neutrality in the act of writing.

The use of the Disney metaphor in defending the ‘complexities’ of an idea, within an explanatory context, remains ambiguously problematic to me. It is crystal clear that such an analytic description embodies the continent of Africa as a big cage where the majority of the poor African population is somehow imprisoned in the absence of financial means to acquire visas and passports enabling them migratory movement or social mobility. The right to move and to cross borders is a rare achieved privilege in most African countries. The African poor, like ‘the animal species’ described in the Disney site, is condemned to dwell where he or she was born. There will be no possibility of reversing the gaze or even dreaming of travelling elsewhere like tourists and other travelers do.  According to the constructed representation, this continent is so dense and studded with people who are closer to nature and other animals than to culture and civilization. Association of Africa (South Africa) with the idea of suffering, and an eventual urgent compulsion to be saved and rescued might not correspond to young American travelers. Those students are more likely to be motivated by experiencing moments of adventure and cultural curiosities rather than to ‘save Africa’.

After the uncomfortable metaphorical journey on how Africa is conceived of by the American mediated consciousness relief from such roundabout figures of speech slowly establishes itself. But not for a long time. These representations are no longer maintained through actual visit to South Africa. Yet they seem to affect how the travel experience is approached and encouraged. The idea that Africa (South Africa) is subdued and somehow dependent on the ‘generosity’ of powerful nations is present in the American mind, and well explained in the book. In addition to ‘the nature’ metaphor, encounter of young American travelers with South Africa is presented to the reader as a physical penetration. Once again, Africa moves away from being portrayed as animalist in character to being embodied as a helpless ‘body’ exposed to a sort of sexual violence. The imagery of such violence finds its context through American travel and encounter with Africa (South Africa). The word penetration is used more than twice to describe encounters of young American students with South Africa and its people. Honestly, the stylistic dimension of the descriptive writing at some point in this chapter infiltrates the idea of Africa as having a ‘female’ body which is kept being invaded and sexually penetrated somewhere, where laws made by humans have no significance or authority. I think that both of the images are exaggerated in the chapter. They just provoke a sense of uneasiness and ambiguity regarding the position of Kathryn Mathers. Indeed, it is difficult, and rather problematic, to conduct fieldwork back home. People do change with the passage of time; they risk being Americanized. Hybrid identities characterize the postmodern world in which people dwell.

Discussion of the book in class was characterized by moments of uncertainties and silenced anger regarding the ambiguous position of the author. There were other fleeting moments of deception and frustration the same way young American travelers were frustrated with their encounter with South Africa. Yet the critical thinking among fellow students of anthropology in class gave the overall discussion an ethical spirit; a sense of accountability and an awareness that the act of writing is a huge responsibility.

Photography was a central concern for the remainder of the chapter. It convey the idea of objectification and penetration. The voice of local people was somehow ignored since the ethnography is about American travelers rather than locals. But since they take part in ‘the paysage’ of description I was wondering why they were rarely given the opportunity to voice their concern for such matters that affect them as well. Through the lens of the student’s camera and the transcribed conducted interviews the reader acquires a sense of the sort of encounter. Young travelers (American students) are more concerned with extending the stereotypes on Africa unconsciously. Association of South Africa with ‘national geographic’ documentaries, and hasty judgments on exotic constructions, is a proof that stereotypes are still alive even among the educated. Primitiveness of life appears to be an ongoing imperial product destined for consumption. But places do change as well with the passage of time, perhaps due to the sort of imperial ‘penetration’ that was conveyed in the text. The institutionalization of such a penetration is intriguing. Cape Town is westernized; it does not look African or third world country at all. It is no longer exotic. Some of the research participants mentioned his or her surprise that people in this city actually manage to speak ‘proper English’. Where one can find the authentic experience paid for for the sake of enjoying adventure travel and dwelling in those places?

However, exploration of various themes in the chapter revolving around the construction of another American identity in South Africa is enriching. The author succeeded in providing a detached anthropological vision on discourses of travel and movement in the American context. Unlike travel literature, which is motivated by the marketing of geographical touristic places, this ethnographic account invites the reader to consider other terrains of thoughts in understanding such corporeal movements and their impact on the local visited destinations. It subscribes to larger discourses on imperialism or neo-colonialism to some extent, perhaps.

 The chapter proposes discussion at another level even when it’s pregnant with ambiguous metaphors at times. But this discussion should not under any circumstances belittle the history of a whole nation through denigrating images mixing up complex concepts. The anthropological examination of new terrains of thought is encouraged by all sensible minds. Having recourse to blurry images on animal-ism and rape of land for the sake of proving the validity of an idea is a matter to be questioned. Venturing into such abstract fields for future academic considerations might be wrongly interpreted or simply equated with the behavior of the research participants when conveying their encounter with South Africa. The third chapter however is charged with valuable information which assert an originality in bringing up the questions and introspection of the author to the open while examining serious concerns on the postmodern condition from the strand of unequal mobility.


2 thoughts on “A Review of “Back to Nature: American’s Great African Adventure” In Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa By Kathryn Mathers

  1. Thanks very much Hicham.

    One part of the essay that I think requires some clarification is this:

    “But I cannot fathom the implicit reasons behind portraying such an intriguing portrait on South Africa and its people specifically and on Africa in a broad sense. In addition, I was wondering whether ‘the unequal mediated discourses between Africa and America’ as explained vigorously by the anthropologist Kathryn Mathers are being amplified further by the act of writing as well.

    “The use of Disney metaphor in defending the ‘complexities’ of a simple idea, within an explanatory context, is problematic and offensive.”

    I am not sure what you are saying, and if you are blaming the author for reporting on how Africa is constructed in mainstream US media and in mainstream entertainment practices, both of which are culturally influential.

    For my part, I think the author could have better organized and seriously expanded all of the material dealing with the construction of “Africa” in such mainstream media, by celebrities, etc. When one becomes better acquainted with this, one realizes that if anything Mathers was being rather polite and reserved.

    • Thank you so much for your comments. I admit that I am still struggling with articulating my thoughts unambiguously. May be the reason why I was looking for clarity in taking sides and assuming a position when I was reading and commenting on the third chapter of this book. The fact that the author of the book was not clear enough in articulating her position in the same chapter regarding the mediated representation (Disney metaphor) and the perceptual one (through the lens of the camera and the traveler’s eyes) renders the scope of interpretations wide and confusing, especially for a non-western reader. Such neutrality in the field, or even while writing, could have serious consequences associated with interpreting and understanding the message and the rationale behind the book. Hasty readers could confuse the ideas conveyed on Africa in the media (the New York Times article) with reality and the implied intentions of the author. So lingering on analyzing these metaphors to introduce chapter three was confusing, and may be unnecessary, in the absence of articulating one’s own point of view clearly. The act of writing shapes the ideas of the mediated world in which we live, and it could have longstanding effects in reality.
      But still as a fallible reader, these are just my own detached interpretations to what I have read. I tried to rectify my own confusing phrases as well in my comment on the chapter.

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