Mathers, K. (2010). “Conclusion: Saving Africa: Love in the Time of Oprah” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa.

Mathers, K. (2010). “Conclusion: Saving Africa: Love in the Time of Oprah” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa.

The conclusion of Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa begins with a quote of Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden and ends with an eight-page critique of Oprah Winfrey. Kipling’s quote opens on a short discussion of empire, colonialism and the resulting ‘white man’s burden’. The author’s main argument is that the students she interviewed came to encounter this burden through their travel to South Africa. Mathers concludes that her study has shown how “young Americans living and traveling in South Africa came face to face not only with America and their Americanness but with something that could be called empire and the burden of its recognition”. As young members of the millennial generation, “their burden was not constituted by a prior experience in colonial subjecthood” (p.182). It would have been interesting to know the students’ thoughts on colonialism prior to their travels. However, Mathers readily admits in the introduction to have forgotten “to consider what idea of Africa Americans had before embarking on their journeys” (p.6).

Mathers leaves out prior experiences of students and chooses to focus on their experience of traveling to southern Africa. She argues this experience allowed them to recognize a “new consciousness” which required them to “reconsider their ideas of self and other”. This newly found consciousness did not result in greater knowledge or appreciation of their host countries “but in a greater understanding of Africa’s relationship to them as American citizens and to the United States” (p.183). If I understand Mathers correctly, in other words the students’ travels to the African continent resulted in a greater ethnocentricity and failed at developing multiplicity of perspectives. Encounters were ultimately less about Africa than about America (p.185), and while the reversed gaze of Africans did destabilize the students’ ideas about Africa, it had a deeper effect on their ideas of what it means to be American.

The author writes that “Africa is the place where Americans can be good Americans”. This is made possible “by the way that African people are rendered as present but irrelevant” (p.184). I would like to suggest that this does not apply only to Africa: any country which is not already controlled by American interests and values is a place where Americans can be good Americans and “find their true selves” (p.184). Americans thought they could be good Americans in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, South Korea, Vietnam, and of course Mexico and a large part of Latin America. The only difference is that from a Western perspective, Africa as a continent is imbued with the spirit of colonial romanticism and a generic jungle landscape for background, something Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can explain better than I.

Mathers further argues that “In finding where they belonged in America, the younger travelers especially were driven to take responsibility for the citizenship” (p.186). Mathers’ informants came to this realization of having an obligation to play world police, but came back to America to join American NGOs (p.185). Is it because it was not possible to be a good American over there, right on the spot, but only through the mediation of governmental and institutional instances? Mathers does not elaborate. Those who chose a different path tried “in their jobs and their personal lives to teach people about their responsibility for helping Africa become more like America” (p.186). Students came back with certitude that Africa (the Countrinent) was not okay, and that to be okay was to correspond to North American standards and values. If students who travel to South Africa come back with a feeling of being responsible for helping a whole continent to become more like their own, I am even more interested in knowing what were their thoughts and what kind of knowledge they had on Africa, African countries, and African cultures prior to their travels. And yet, despite the ‘excitement’, Mathers rightly concludes that “these are gestures that, despite their good intentions, effectively make Africans disappear” (p.186).

This quick recapitulation of the argument of the book opens on a discussion of Oprah as embodying the typical American (p.187), and how, through her use of shared suffering and call to common selfhood to engage her audience, she creates the same disturbing relationship between Africans and Americans as Mathers’ informants did. Numerous pages are spent to expose the marketing practices of Harpo Inc. Mathers argues that her informants replicated Oprah’s “individualizing and depoliticized framework” (p.194) and her “consuming the suffering of others” (p.194).

Unfortunately, the argument gets a little sketchy when it turns to Africa’s importance in Americans’ ability to dwell in the United States. Mathers argues that “by taking the idea of America seriously” and “putting Africa center stage through a study of travel and tourism between these two spaces”, she shows the “global connections and disconnections on which contemporary identities are formed” (p.194). I am not quite sure what it means to take the idea of America seriously, it sounds very Ayn Rand to me, and I am not quite sure Africa really is the center stage since her argument always drives back to America. Mathers could have expanded a bit more on what she meant by global connections and disconnections.

She concludes that her books fills in “what has been missing in anthropologies of America, which is the way that the geopolitical boundaries of the United States constitute a highly mobile national cultural space where Americanness is endlessly constructed and contested” (p.194). I personally think what is missing in anthropologies of America is a world anthropologies account of America, and more ethnographies about America not written by Americans or people of American descent. Mathers concludes that her work “asks Why is Africa so important to Americans” (p.186). Again, one wonders why she did not ask her informants what they thought of Africa prior to their travels. It is as if the question came after the book was written, making up for the lack of methodology.

Finally, it seems to have become the norm when writing a book about the United States and/or Americanness to include a reference, however loosely related and perhaps not even mentioned elsewhere in the book, on the collapse of the Twin Towers in September 2001. Mathers makes no exception to the rule. She writes: “Although I was watching young Americans in southern Africa as they negotiated a new perception of America, I believe that this was just an extreme version of what became a new generational reality after September 11, 2001. It was no longer possible, as it had seemed in 2000, to imagine an American and an American identity as separate from the wider world” (p.185). This foggy reference to 9/11 is another clue that leads me to think that Mathers wrote the book more from an American perspective than a South African perspective, although she claims membership to both national identities.

The use of typical 9/11 lexicon is so deeply American in style and wording it perhaps shows how writing this book has led Mathers to discover her own Americanness. She compares the students’ confusion in South Africa to the American people’s “deep confusion about their place in most of the world” after 9/11. In both cases, Americans are moved by an understanding of belonging in America, which includes a sense of global responsibility, to help Africa as a way to respond “to their confusion about their country’s place in the world” (p.195).

Mathers finally concludes that this nonetheless leaves Africa as a space of no geography or politics of any other kind. (p.195). But the central argument of the book seems to be that when going abroad, young Americans, whether they have hyphenated identities or not, come back more convinced and more proud of being American, more certain of being on the right track, in the process of doing good things. From what Mathers tells us, it seemed that there was no real cultural exchange, but a reinforcement of barriers. Mathers does not tell us what the students gained from learning about South African knowledge and culture, except that it reinforced their sentiment of having an American identity, of belonging to America, and of wanting to promote the empire. Investigating what the students knew prior to their travels would have allowed a more thorough analysis of their notion of being part of an empire, of how they gained consciousness of it at home, and of how it became actualized abroad.


One thought on “Mathers, K. (2010). “Conclusion: Saving Africa: Love in the Time of Oprah” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa.

  1. Excellent points from start to finish, many thanks. I shouted “ha!” when I read this (and then the essay continued to elaborate further):

    “If I understand Mathers correctly, in other words the students’ travels to the African continent resulted in a greater ethnocentricity and failed at developing multiplicity of perspectives”

    That really does seem to be the case. And if it is the case, it unravels some of the book’s suggestions about the impact of travel. It can still be “transformative”, given that reinforcement is also, strictly speaking, a “transformation”.

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