Reflections on the final chapters of Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

This is a summary and discussion of the final two chapters and conclusion of Travel, Humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa, by Kathryn Mathers (2010). It has been structured from the minute notes of the seminar dedicated to these chapters so the answers, opinions, compliments, criticisms, and general sentiments within this post are not only reflective of this author alone but contain those of all the seminar participants. My efforts here have been to coherently reproduce these various positions to dialogue with (rather than a response to) these closing chapters.

The three students (Megan, Corey, and Maria) were defined as just “white” and “American” by Mathers. She placed a good deal of emphasis on how these three student travelers needed to express their ‘Americaness’ and ethnic identities through food, fashion, and hair style. Do you think that South Africans are homogenizing what it means to be American? (Is it fair treatment by the author?) Is Mathers implying that who they are is determined by South Africans?

While Mathers certainly argues that South African culture has a homogenizing effect on the American student travelers she spent her time with, it is not a unidirectional process. As far reaching as American culture is globally it does not have a totalizing effect, rather, the development of ‘Americaness’ in parts of the world not in the United States is a collaborative endeavor. Both sides appear to be engaged in this homogenizing project, it is a two way street. Both Americans and South Africans had preconceptions and assumptions of each other. Mathers mentions how South Africans generally viewed Americans as leading opulent, privileged and wealthy lifestyles. Much like their American counterparts their constructions of America and Americans was heavily influenced by mediated film and television imagery (Beverley Hills 90210, Fresh Prince of Bel-air, etc) though Mathers is less accusative of South Africans than the student travelers from the United States.

As well, the American student travelers were confronted with stereotypes and cultural models that they did not normally have to do deal with which evoked a deep sense of disjuncture with their normative cultural narratives. These Student travelers expressed reactions ranging from confusion to disgust. Many also reported a general awakening (personal, emotional, social, political, and cultural in form), but it should be noted that these moments of clarity and connection with the local populations they were immersed in their travels were highly personalized moments of self discovery that it into their preconceived notions and assumptions of Africa as a place in need of their intervention.

Are the author’s descriptions of South African homogenization adequate? That is, did the author’s descriptions of Americans through an organizational matrix prove adequate? (As opposed to a political-economic identity: not a ‘Montrealer’ but a ‘banker’) It seems that South Africans (who are most often nameless) and Mathers are engaged in a process of guilt transfer: as if these young and vulnerable student travelers need to account (or are being asked to take account) for these heavy power relations between America and Africa. Or rather, by framing these larger socio-political and economic issues around tourism and humanitarian work by Americans in Africa, Mathers draws our attention to how some of these larger issues are at the core of Americans’ projects of self discovery. Perhaps if Mathers had made the individual journey’s of these student travelers, and their preconceptions and assumptions, as the central point of departure, and not the larger macro issues surrounding ‘Americanness’ or Western Hegemony, then these types of organizational identities would not have been so problematic. As well, the journals that the student travelers were asked to write and the context of the Mathers research project brought these imperialist stereotypes into their thoughts. For instance, Maria’s journal entries appear to be highly reflexive, but an imperialist is not an adequate description of her attitude or comportment in the field. Rather, she seems at odds with imperialist or western hegemonic attitudes in her need to express herself through her ethnic identity rather than her ‘Americanness” so to speak.

Mathers seems to lean on an argument that Baudrillard put forth that post 9/11 America is composed of weakly defined notions of freedom and democracy that spread easy but leave culture in the United States undefined. That is, we know where the United States is and what it looks like (on a map or through stereotypes and stereotypical imagery) but we do not know where it ends. It is dilemma that involves both entity and process. Entity in that there are Americans in America; process in that there are places and individuals who have been Americanized all over the world. These Americanized individuals may not have passports but they hold American “values” and culture” to a high degree (language, Harvard business, freedom, and democracy). This dilemma, Mathers says, makes it difficult to talk about American culture because “everybody and nobody can be American” (2010: 142).

Although it can be argued that a unique form of American identity may not be fully realizable under these types of conditions, there are many unique formulations of localized ‘Americanness’ in many parts of the world. These formulations are also heavily influenced by mediated imagery in the news, film, and television, fashion, and generate their own subcultures of knowledge and worldviews. Moroccans, for instance, are very much connected to western politics and culture through television. They consume idealized representations of western food, people, capitalism, politics, etc that are used as symbols of status, literally ‘to know’ or possess knowledge of western culture, politics, and affairs is a form of social currency. This is also not limited to Morocco as many cultures utilize these forms of social capital to engage in everyday relationships, Canada especially due to its proximity and close ties economically and politically.

Mathers seems to be over emphasizing this idea of pervasive ‘Americanness’ after the fact. She indicates clearly in the beginning of the book that she never thought about ‘Americaness’ before she set out to do this research and that it was a realization she came to in the field. Discovering one’s main topical idea in the field is not an uncommon occurrence as many ethnographers have had assumptions dispelled or moments of clarity through interactions with research populations, however, Mathers decision to make this the central and over arching theme to her book seems more revisionist, something done after the fact. Still, Mathers rightfully describes this privilege that United States student travelers have to go abroad and travel compared to South Africans. This is not a wrongful or inadequate description since Americans are privileged in this sense, besides enjoying the privileges of being citizens of the most powerful military and political country in the world.

Being that Mathers is an anthropologist traveler (at a minimum to the United States and back), how might the argument of this book and its conclusions reflect on the encounter in the field and on anthropology in general? One important aspect of the book is that it draws attention to the assumptions and motivations that anthropologists have going into the field. But are the anthropologists not also travelers?

Firstly, this book uniquely displays how anthropologists move, dwell, and occupy foreign places. Anthropologists immerse themselves in foreign cultures to better understand them, the daily lives of their practitioners, and their struggles. Secondly, it shows that as much as anthropology is concerned with adventure and discovery of new places and people, it is also a journey of self discovery. Field experiences and encounters change the anthropologist as much as those they collaborate with. There are always preconceptions and assumptions when entering the field. That they may concern your topic of research is of little importance as we carry cultural and social biases, norms, markers, and assumptions to every foreign cultural encounter. The journal entries that Mathers produced helped to articulate this symbiotic and reflexive relationship throughout the book. However, the downplaying of the relationships that some of the student travelers had with local South Africans and Kenyans left the reader asking how these relationships influenced not only the perceptions and assumptions of these student travelers but of their companions as well.


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.

Reflections on Chapter 7, “Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It”

Mathers, Kathryn. (2010). Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. [Chapter 7, Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It, 155-179]

The title of Chapter 7, Suffering Beauty: How to Save Africa without Changing It, may seem a bit confounding upon first glance. However, after reading the chapter it seems to perfectly encapsulate the ideas that Mathers presents. Africa is the suffering beauty. It is a wondrous landscape where the people prevail in spite of their suffering; they suffer with beauty (Pg 155, 161). Additionally, the movement to ‘save Africa’ accepts that this natural beauty, of the continent and its inhabitants, is an integral part of Africa’s identity. As such, it compels individuals to ‘save Africa’ in a way that will preserve this beauty (Pg 155). In this chapter these themes follow the American exchange students as they first arrive in Africa, all the way through to their return home to America. Mathers’ also strengthens these themes by providing additional examples from the media and excerpts from exchange students’ journal entries.

Poverty in media representations of Africa is the first major theme tackled by Mathers in this chapter. Celebrities, in particular, have made poverty the central issue in their campaign to ‘save Africa’ (Pg 155-157). As such, poverty “has become an entry point for an encounter with Africa” (Pg 157). The perceived ubiquity and severity of poverty in Africa, and the profound impact that it can have on a traveller, was reflected in the journal entries of several American exchange students in Cape Town. However, these students also noted that there was resilience and hopefulness in these people, in spite of their situation (Pg 160-162). The ability of the African people to be “happy despite having nothing” (Pg 161) is the second theme Mathers addresses. In particular, she emphasizes the way in which the resilience of the African people later informs both an American sense of identity and development agendas in Africa.

As Mathers moves further into her discussion on representations of Africa she comments on the way in which Africa is constructed as an “exotic space” and a “cultural landscape” (Pg 163). Although there are many urban landscapes, Africa is still perceived as being “primordial” and “primeval” (Pg 164). In this third theme, Mathers expresses concern over how these perceptions inform development agendas and also how they amount to an erasure of the multiple peoples and places which comprise the continent (Pg 175).

Development agendas seek to save the peoples of Africa from the problems which plague their continent, while also preserving the natural beauty there within. As the subtitle of this chapter articulates, people seek to save Africa without changing it. Mathers bundles all of these ideas up in her fourth theme: American identity. The writings of the exchange students reflect how they experienced poverty in Africa and how, through this, they also began to fully realize the privilege of being American. Many of the students felt that this privilege came with a duty to give back to Africa. The “African smiling in the face of terrible conditions” (Pg 162) helped to further construct the notions of how they could ‘save Africa.’

Mathers comments on how students reoriented their goals and career aspirations upon their return home. Africa had changed them, and many of them wanted to find ways to give back. Mathers, however, seems to suggest that these desires simply fit the ‘save Africa’ narrative that she has been developing throughout the course of this book. The author grants one exception to this narrative, however, Casey. Mathers attributes a genuineness to Casey’s desire to help Africa over that of her classmates. She writes that Casey chose to “make her contribution to East Africa not to the United States” (Pg 168). It is not clear, however, why the other students’ contributions were not also for Africa. Our class discussions regarding Chapter 5 noted the stronger relationships Mathers had forged with Corey, Maria and Megan than the rest of the group and how this may have affected her analysis of them. In this chapter, Mathers’ close relationship with Casey seems to emerge as a bias in her analysis of Casey’s intentions and motivations over the other exchange students who also participated in her project. This raises important questions for anthropologists and researchers alike. For one, how close of a relationship should an ethnographer/ researcher maintain with their participants? Additionally, can intimate relationships be forged between researcher and participant without impacting the researcher’s interpretation and analysis? This idea has come up several times throughout the course of our semester in class discussions. In general, it is agreed that intimate relationships can be formed with participants without affecting the final analysis of the researcher. However, it is incumbent upon the researcher to note this potential bias and keep it ever present in their minds when they do undertake analysis of their work.

Another issue which emerged for me in Mathers’ work was the occasional misinterpretation of ideas. The first clear example of this was in Chapter 2 where she analyzed a joke delivered on the improvisational comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? Mathers writes:

 The host Drew Carey described Madagascar as “the island off the coast of that country Africa.” The actors thought it was funny that he could not tell the difference between a continent and a country, but the joke falls flat given how common such a misconception is. (Pg 52)

The first time I read this I was surprised by her comments. I could not tell if she had purposefully misconstrued the joke or if she truly had not understood it. Drew Carey was making fun of American ignorance or, more kindly phrased, lack of knowledge. That was the joke. Had he actually thought Africa was a country this would not be a joke, it would simply be a fact. As a professional comedian his job is ta make jokes, not facts.

Similarly in this chapter, when speaking of how the exchange students perceived there to be a “richness [which] comes from poverty” (Pg 162) there seems to be a misattribution again on the author’s part. The exchange students were moved to see the way in which many of the Africans were able to handle their problems. Problems which they had never seen the like of in America. They could smile, be happy, and even generous in spite of their lack of material things. Mathers depicts this, however, as the students belief that “living without is somehow OK, even redeeming, at least for ‘others’” (Pg 162). I believe that the students were more reflexive about this issue. Many of the problems which we face in North America, and often complain about, seem so trivial. Additionally, our handling of these matters would seem somewhat shameful in light of what the students experienced in Africa. That is what the students were reflecting on. That is also why they experienced a degree of culture shock when they returned home (Pg 165- 167). Their experience had changed them, but their families and friends remained, more or less, the same.

Overall, this book has generated a great deal of discussion amongst our class, both good and bad. Many of us, my fellow classmates and myself, would agree that most of the ideas presented by Mathers are interesting and generally on point. However, as one of my classmates articulated, they never seem to fully develop. As such, most of the themes presented in this chapter have also been touched on in many of the other chapters. Mathers’ provides copious examples, whether from the media or from travel journals kept by participants, to support her claims but she never seems to delve more deeply into the issues she is presenting. Unfortunately, this leaves the reader expectantly awaiting a deeper analysis but never encountering one.

Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa, Chapter 6: ‘How do they know I am American?’ Travel and the Discovery of Home

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 6: ‘How Do They Know I Am American?’ Travel And The Discovery Of Home.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 137-154.

In this chapter, Mathers attends to “the ways American travelers respond to the reverse gaze of South Africans that marked them as American” (138). Mathers notes the gaze as a fundamental trope that has been employed in both historical and contemporary travel writing and tourism theory. While Mathers analyzes the social exchange and reflexive responses of her participants, our class discussion brought to the fore the notion of her representation of her participants, the consumerist aspects of social exchange, and her particular focus as exclusionary to important issues in South Africa, such as poaching. In this way, Mathers’ representation of her participants invokes classic cross-cultural positions, but at the same time, her constructions do not fulfill the holistic view that anthropological representations should endeavor to meet.

Part of the problem is perhaps owing to how Mathers dealt with her pool of participants. As we get to know them better in her ethnographic descriptions, we can understand that they are all going through their own rite of passage, learning aspects about their national, ethnic, gendered, and racial identities. Their conclusions about their positions as American travelers in South Africa and to political ideology show us stark contrasts of how certain American values are internalized and expressed via confidential conversations, diary entries, and so on. This draws some parallels between anthropological and tourist reflexivity, which Mathers touched on in Chapter 1, but lacks substantial elaboration. That is, Mathers seems to have spent much of her time taking ethnographic notes on her participants’ internal struggles and how they reflected on their self, rather than analyzing their expressions or actions to certain situations.

Another problem is Mathers’ lack of elaboration with key theoretical concepts that she raises. For example, on the notion of boundaries, Mathers seems to be unaware of Fredrick Barth’s (1969) seminal work, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, which speaks of boundaries (of ethnicity). This work has subsequently been refined by many scholars to highlight the identity within boundaries as distinct, but also in a state of perpetual change or negotiation. This is not a sort of ‘fluidity’ of identity as much as friction caused by two borders inhabiting the same space. For identities to be ‘fluid’, I would argue that the flow must be unrestrained, or find a way around any obstacles, as one might imagine the way water flows around and over rocks in a river.

Mathers’ interpretation of this exchange is quite different, marked by the tourist gaze. Mathers describes this as problematic exchanges of negotiating (internal and external) terms of identity. She describes social actors as they attempt to reach a certain destination or pass as locals, and limits her results as ethnographic data that stops at her cross-cultural comparison. Both situations are less prone to demonstrating the attempt to embody local identities but, instead, show how the American tourists manage to create more space within the boundaries of their ‘bubble’, exacerbating a sense of distance between different cultural attitudes to foreign encounters. This is not to say that the American students made ‘enemies’ or created antagonistic situations per se, but even the tiny victories of amicable exchanges seem to be hollow in the greater face of national identity, a force that Mathers describes as quite out of the Americans students’ scope of understanding.

However, many other passages are drawn short by Mathers’ scattered attention to a plethora of issues and concepts: identities (markers of gender, race, nationality, class, politics, etc.), flows, space, time, home, embodiment, privilege, and wealth. Rather than deciding on how to draw together these issues and theoretical concepts into a solid ethnographic position that speaks to what the gaze represents, Mathers opts to unfairly focus on the shortcomings of her participants, casting them as liminal victims to their own ignorance or lack of wisdom. I am not saying Mathers has done this intentionally. Rather, she has failed to speak to the disparity between concepts of wealth in the form of mobility in tourism and travel, instead opting for her cross-cultural notes, with slight mention to other scholarly works.

Or, as another example, she has failed to bring out what it means to be “black” in the social and historical context of contemporary South Africa in the process of Americanization as a form of globalism. Instead, she speaks to pop cultural references such as Oprah or Chris Rock, which give weak links to the influence American black identities have on South African people and culture. In the voice of Sheryll Wilson, Mathers quotes, “part of Oprah’s success lies in her ability to conflate media icon with self and in making her audience believe that the person they see on television is Oprah Winfrey herself” (187). This potentially gives us more than a simple criticism of the damage wrought by popular celebrities. What I imagine Mathers could have expanded on are ideas around the influence that role and status play in the construction of American ideals and identities embodied in young travelers, coming from America, which create a rolling snowball effect that manifests within the gaze itself. Thus, the practice of gazing in an American way could have attended to notions of space and boundary as a reflexive rite of passage to the construction of identity in American tourists.

Furthermore, the influence, or ‘flow’, of American media in America is a force to contend with and worth in-depth analysis, especially in light of its effects on South African citizens. The surprise that Mathers’ students felt at its popularity overseas, as exemplified via the television show, 90210, show us a disconnect between popular and material cultural knowledge and nation-state identities. While Mathers’ description of Maria in Chapter 5 is telling of American positions on ethnic and national identity, she does not continue to build upon this, as the title of Chapter 6, ‘How Do They Know I Am American?’ Travel And The Discovery Of Home (138) seems to suggest. That is, situating ‘home’ through the gaze as influenced by travel, media, and the nation-state could have drawn together some elucidating points on how Western colonialism is subtly practiced through expectations and the consuming aspects of American travel experiences. Mathers touches on this idea, noting that “tourism or travel is often defined by the collection of stamps in one’s passport” (138), but again, falls short in expanding on this notion.

While Mathers’ ethnographic accounts are interesting, she clearly has taken on many tasks in order to fulfill the requirements of her book. Still, the lack of drawing together her ideas in a tighter conceptual frame leaves us scratching our heads as to how she comfortably reaches some of the conclusions at the end of the book.


TRAVEL, HUMANITARIANISM, AND BECOMING AMERICAN IN AFRICA, CHAPTER 5: Disrupting the Hyphen: Identity and Belonging in America

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 5: Disrupting The Hyphen: Identity and Belonging in America’ Travel And The Discovery Of Home.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 117-135.

Kathryn Mathers’ fifth chapter “Disrupting the Hyphen” in Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa, centers around the experience of three students studying abroad in Cape Town. Prior to their study abroad experiences, Megan, Maria and Corey had never “thought of themselves as just American” (P.117). Each woman had labeled herself as a specific kind of hyphenated American. Thus, their introduction to a South African perception of them as ‘just American’ proved to be particularly unsettling. Mathers argued that their interactions with South Africans caused each woman to rethink her identity, and to transform it in various ways.

Mathers began her chapter with an introduction to Megan, a particularly politically orientated “white American from a rural conservative town” (P.121). Prior to her experience in South Africa, Megan had accepted the American phenomenon that “only black Americans were allowed to speak about Africa” (P.121). However, visiting Africa bestowed her with a confidence and validity to speak about Africa. Mathers suggested that Megan’s desire to speak about Africa was reflected in her desire to buy and wear West African styled clothing. However, I am more inclined to argue that this interest in local clothing was perhaps more related to her financial insecurity. She wasn’t able to afford the fashionable clothes or the excursions that other students could. However, in South Africa, Megan realized that “a small amount of dollars went quite far in terms of life’s little luxuries” (P.122). Among the South African clothing stores, for the first time, Megan was likely in the position of a buyer who could afford to buy. Megan spoke about how she had “enjoyed being able to wear what she wanted and how in South Africa she was able to feel comfortable wearing clothes that matched her own sense of who she [was] rather than the expectations of others” (P.123). Perhaps ‘being able to wear what she wanted’ can be stretched to include being able to afford and partake in fashions. Perhaps someone who can afford to belong, is more in line with Megan’s sense of self than someone “who carries a stamp of the outsider” (P.119)

Mathers revealed Megan’s understanding that her West African clothing preference couldn’t continue back in America (P.122). Just as fashions don’t necessarily translate between countries, neither do one’s finances. Megan likely realized that her time as a wealthy individual in South Africa couldn’t continue in America. Despite the lack of permanence in Megan’s financial climb, she discovered that she was in fact wealthy, privileged, and powerful compared to many South Africans. She determined that this wealth and privilege was tied to her fate of “[being] born into the world’s wealthiest country” (P.123). In other words, Megan realized that being American, no matter the difference between working, middle or upper class, bestows one with a wealth and privilege in many places outside of America. This wealth and privilege, or American citizenship, likely fed Megan’s preexisting “guilt over the role the United States played in the negative effects of globalization” (P.121). As well as her “[feelings of responsibility] for the plight of others” (P.124).

During our seminar we discussed this concept of guilt transfer. Is it fair that these young Americans have to bear the wealth and power differentials of their country? We came to no definitive answer. One student related guilt transfer to a coffee shop worker or a cashier. These workers are almost never in charge of store policies, price augmentations or really any responsibilities outside of their often limited tasks. However, due to their frequent interactions with customers, they bear many complaints. Ironically, it is often common knowledge that these workers hold no power to change things to satisfy a customer’s desires. Similarly, travelers are often confronted with complaints in regards to their countries’ governmental decisions, policies, and etcetera, even though it is often known that these travelers have very little power to change their governments. Whether it is fair to hold citizens accountable is almost irrelevant. The point that was emphasized during our class is that it happens regardless. An anthropologist’s task should be focused on capturing and interpreting these moments of collision.

In the chapter Mathers also introduces Maria, a Mexican-American who experienced culture shock in college due to her traditional Mexican upbringing (P.124). During Maria’s time in Cape Town she was confronted with South Africans who refused to believe that she was Mexican, due in part to her light complexion. Mathers noted Maria’s performance of drenching her food in hot sauce in order to assert her Mexican identity, and resist the American identity imposed on her (P.126). Mathers concludes that Maria’s use of hot sauce was in fact her assertion of the possibility of being both Mexican and American, rather than a rejection of an American identity. I am not so convinced. Maria’s experience is the only one that mentions a xenophobic and negative reaction towards Americans. She encountered South Africans who vocalized their ability to identify Americans through their accents, and their general discontent with their presence (P.125). Perhaps this general displeasure towards Americans encouraged Maria, through the use of hot sauce, to distance herself from the possibility of being ‘just American,’ and her American classmates.

During our seminar we questioned why these Americans left their perceived identities to the hands of South Africans. Why should they have the last say? Why should their uninformed perceptions of American culture flatten Maria’s identity to that of ‘just an American?’ Examining Maria’s story a little closer, I am much more convinced that Maria’s performance of her Mexican identity was for the benefit of her audience, rather than her own. It is possible, likely even, that Maria’s resistance towards a singular American identity was due to her witnessed negative reaction towards Americans. Her alignment as more than an American can be interpreted as her method of gaining the approval and acceptance of her hosts. Perhaps Maria was aware that her flattened identity was only flattened in South Africa, when confronted with South Africans. After all, the opinion of a culture who shared none of her identities, is far less devastating. If Mexicans in Mexico had flattened her identity to ‘just an American’ perhaps that would have been more of a reason for an identity disruption. I argue that Maria asserted her Mexican identity in order to be better accepted by South Africans, rather than due to the inner turmoil Mathers had perceived.

Corey was the third and study-abroad student of the chapter. During her experience in South Africa, Corey discovered a piece of her identity no longer valid. Prior to her time spent in South Africa, Corey had labeled herself as an African-American, as most black Americans do. However, when a South African asked how she labeled herself, she realized that the African part of her identity sounded strange because she had no ties to the people in Africa (P.128). With the African part of her hyphen eradicated, Corey was left to contemplate the sole American identity left over. Labeling herself as simply an American also felt strange. In her journals Corey stated that an American identity only incorporated those of a European descent (P.129). Similar to Corey’s identity in South Africa, her hair was a source of stress. She needed to get it washed but she was faced with the dilemma of a lack of chemical strengtheners, not unlike the lack of adequate labels she was faced with. After hunting around hair salons, Corey gave up on her quest and opted for braided hair. What I believe to be truly telling is that Corey kept her hair in an even more natural style when she returned home. Her braids in South Africa can be understood as her temporary solution. Her ability to make do with what South Africa had to offer. Similarly, the disrupted ‘African’ in her African-American identity could have also been a temporary adherence to her presence in another culture. Upon her return back home, Corey could have easily reverted back to straightening her hair, and referring to herself as an African-American. What is interesting, and truly telling, is that she did neither. Mathers interpreted Corey’s afro as a sign of “how comfortable she felt with being both black and American” (P.130). However, I feel that Mathers’ conclusion expels the possibility that Corey was in fact just comfortable with her lack of any label. Rather than continue her former adherence to hairstyles expected of African-Americans, which her family articulated, or sample popular hairstyles of South Africans, Corey’s afro signified her resolve to simply let her hair and identity to be as is. Rather than navigate different identities, liker her afro, Corey seems to accept that she doesn’t belong to either an African or American identity, rather than to both as Mathers suggested.

Through Megan, Maria, and Corey, Mathers expressed the tensions felt by students who had their hyphenated identities threatened, even if only temporarily. Through the use of materials and objects, each young woman either asserted or navigated her challenged identity. Mathers believed that the manipulation of certain materials was a reflection of each woman grappling with her challenged identity. I have my reservations about her conclusions. I argue that each woman’s acceptance of fluidity in their identity, reflected through their use of certain materials, could have their desire to fit in, and adhere to a South African culture. Megan could have dressed in a West African style in order to better adhere to local trends, due to her ability to afford the trends. Maria could have asserted her Mexican identity in order to be better accepted by South Africans who exhibited animosity towards Americans. Corey could have rejected the ‘African’ in her hyphen in order honour the distinction South Africans made between themselves and her. Mathers correctly identified a complexity in each woman’s collision with her identity’s reflection in South Africa. By adhering to South Africans’ ideas of their identities were these women accepting their Americaness? Perhaps Megan was. I am not so convinced that Maria and Corey were.

Thoughtful Provocations (Part I) on “Through the Looking Glass: Encountering the Unexpected in Africa”

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 4: Through the Glass: Encountering the Unexpected in Africa.” In Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 89-115.

In Chapter 4, Mathers explores the barriers which tourists in the study abroad program experience in their attempts to have a serendipitous and unscheduled, authentic (perhaps even interactive) experience(s) with locals on their travels in South(ern) Africa. For many this is a sign of an authentic voyage to another world, beyond the confines of the façade of tourism and the staged performances put on by those employed by tourist companies. In many instances, these interactions are as much a dubious recreation of everyday life in another context, as are those constructed, packaged and sold by the tourist industry. At times, they may be instances where tourists are inadvertently provided a glimpse into the lives of the people of the host country they are visiting. The main difference though lies in the way these experiences are labeled as authentic. Understanding this as a catalyst to the tourist experience, tourism companies have tried harder to provide exactly these experiences to those traveling in their company. This adaptation has changed the way tours are operated, and now excursions to traditional “native” and “indigenous” villages are on many retinues, alongside cultural and religious (among other) landmarks. These are many times mixed in with a number of other activities, such as zip lining through sacred territories, kayaking and other action based activities, which are meant to amplify the experience, if not to simply create an initial appeal.

In this article, I hope to delve into some of the points made by Mathers pertaining to the role of tourist companies in constructing and providing the basis for these authentic experiences, how they are interpreted and negotiated by tourists and what results they incur upon the world views of those who partake in them.

Mathers uses the example of Global Exchange tourist company as her example of the sort of initiative to bring tourists into contact with a more authentic version of South Africa on their travels. Though as the author states, these experiences are by no clear manner defined specifically in such terms, but are rather “both unique encounter(s) and ubiquitous one(s)” (Mathers 2010: 101). Americans on these tours wanted to both experience a validating tour of South Africa, but were also troubled by much of what they encountered and were reluctant to conform to social norms and cultural rules. In a sense, they longed for a true cultural experience, but did not intend for that experience to require cultural relativism. Much of the problem inherent in this yearning for authentic travel experiences within a unique culture stemmed from their inability to grasp the concept that authenticity is largely a social fabrication and that to experience the authentic one must be open to its form being far different from what was initially expected. When expectations were met, only then were the experiences deemed authentic, when they were underwhelming and did not fit ascribed cultural traits (imposed by the travelers themselves) then they were deemed inauthentic. One such example is when South Africans were friendly to the tour group and one traveler asked if these encounters had been staged, not believing that such friendliness could be mustered without provocation and/or without compensation.

Therefore the authentic, serendipitous engagement with locals while on a tour may be quite a difficult experience to encounter for many tourists, whether this is due to the socio-cultural divides which exist between host and visitor (such as language barriers, gender segregation etc…), expectations on the part of those voyaging and/or the simply inability for people to find a common ground on which to build communication and rapport. In this sense, Mathers both applauds companies such as Global Exchange and explores their limitations. For all that such programs bring people together to experience a unique encounter with “Others”, they cannot predict, nor control the outcome.

Such was my experience on a recent trip to Cancun, Mexico, where I took an excursion tour to Coba during my stay. This day was filled with engaging in traditional Mayan rituals, swimming in a sacred underground river, kayaking, zip lining, visiting and climbing the Mayan ruins in Coba (“the oldest and the original” from a pamphlet provided by the tour company AltourNative) and a jeep ride through the surrounding jungle area. As a student of anthropology I realized how orchestrated this experience was, but at the same time, I was fully able to engage and interact with the locals who were also present on the tour. I had felt that this was a shared experience in which everyone in the group spoke, and became as intimate, with the tour guide and locals who were also on tour, as I had. In retrospect, simply looking over the pictures on my return, I was able to identify a visible “body space” between the tour’s Caucasian travelers and the local Mexican contingent there “on their day off” to “have some fun… with my friend”. Amidst the local contingent were two tourists (my partner and I), though we were the only ones, I had not even recognized the divide between the two groups myself, until later, but it was a perfect illustration of the different intents travelers brought with them to the excursion.

For my partner and myself, we were undertaking this excursion as a way to see more of Mexico than simply our resort, we chose it both because we enjoyed the activities involved and wished to visit the historical sites, but also, because we thought it would be a good way “to meet people”. What I mean by this is, we like people, we like many sorts of people from many different places and we knew (from past experience) that excursions such as these create smaller groups for a more intimate period of familiarization. These groups are usually made up of tourists and locals. By engaging in the excursion in this manner we approached it not simply from the angle of experiencing an authentic tour of Mexico, something we both knew this tour would not provide, but instead as a way to engage with authentic people in a unique shared experience.

The four friends I have made since this excursion (Omar, Suri, Marie & Stephan) are both Mexican and Canadian, though the way we came to know each other was in much the same way. We experienced things together, no matter how those things were produced and/or received; they were made authentic by our shared participation. This may have been amplified due to the bodily nature of the activities we were involved in which allowed us to share also in embodied experiences which we could all relate to and draw on. No matter the cause, by the end of the trip we were all very excited to meet again in the future, with each other as houseguests. Already, Marie and Stephan (Canadians) have attempted to have dinner with my partner and me, though we have been too busy on both sides. As for Omar and Suri (Mexicans), it is an affront to my sensibilities for anyone to even suggest that I was simply using them (in any meaning of the word) for my own ends. These two men are exceptional individuals and perhaps if they weren’t this story would read quite differently, but those are arguments better left to another day. The authentic experience for me was going into a place where I knew nothing of the culture, allowing myself to be ignorant and shown the reality of the world they lived in. To be with them, not in an artificial or inauthentic way, but as the only way I knew how, as myself, as a Canadian on vacation, as an individual of very little knowledge about Mexico. To be any other way would demand authenticity where it was already destined to simple failure.

In writing this piece, perhaps I had wished to convey some sort of substantial argument which truly exposed the shortcomings of searching for the authentic experience in foreign locals, but it feels instead as though the bonds made that day are forever crystallized in the moment in which they existed. To convey that, as I have come to realize, may be impossible, it even feels inauthentic recounting the experience. So on that note I leave you with a few words of wisdom, reminiscent of Mathers’ statement that “tourism or travel is, therefore, trusted to be the panacea for false images of the other” (Mathers 2010: 92). Travel was never the solution to deconstructing images of the Other, it simply realigns concepts and reorganizes the boundaries of stereotypical categorization, what is truly needed to achieve this sort of renegotiation of “false images” is breaking down social barriers, not being scared to put yourself in danger, not being inauthentic with those you engage with, and remembering that we all have much of the same basic needs and that we all want to be treated with dignity.

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.

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]

Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa, Chapter 1: Moving Fieldwork: Traveling with Americans to and from Africa

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 1: Moving fieldwork: Traveling with Americans to and from Africa.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 11-41.

Mathers opens this chapter with two straightforward statements: “this book is not an ethnography” and “my focus is on how an imagined and encountered ‘Africa’ is mobilized to support certain ideas about America and being American” (11). In anthropology, ethnographies have served to accomplish a multitude of tasks: some texts focus on engaging with abstract theoretical concepts or culture-specific practices, while others on Geertzian ‘thick descriptions’ in order to detail the affairs of people in foreign places. It is often the case that these tasks work together to explain one another. These ‘classic’ approaches to writing ethnographies have served to provide ample wiggle-room that allow various styles and approaches to writing and explaining culture. For this reason, I am puzzled as to why Mathers insists that her text is not, on a whole, an ethnography simply because she does not “claim to study an American ethnos” (11). She does not explain if this means, in her view, that in order to write an ethnography, one must be actively engaged in the societies one chooses to write on, or if reflexive positioning of herself and her subjects (as far as this chapter goes) simply doesn’t make the cut. The closest I can come to understanding her statement is similar to a person who paints a picture only to inform subsequent onlookers that the painting is not ‘art’. Is this a case of humbling oneself, or did we (as a classroom of discussants) all fail to understand what was missing?

Leaving this quizzical bit aside, and suffice to say, I consider this an ethnographic text and do read it as one – albeit, Mathers claims to be strictly focused on a particular set of theoretical concerns rather than deep ethnographic accounts to provide us with enriched anthropological holism. She continues along these lines of positioning in defining the parameters of her study as concentrated on “a specific historical and political moment in the United States…[while] focusing on broad categories…[to] show how ideas about Americanness are being expressed in multiple ways by the Americans I observed and through American popular as well as political cultures” (12). What is problematic comes next in her claim that her fieldwork examines experiences “outside of every day life” (12).

For Mathers then, accompanying travelers on their journeys outside of every day life somehow entails a non-stop glamorous and surreal experience that is beyond the scope of the mundane aspects of living. This of course, is somewhat of an overstatement, but Mathers appears to deny the existence of the repetitive and banal processes of sitting, waiting, boarding buses/airplanes/trains, aimless walking, asking for directions, eating packed sandwiches, etcetera, that are included in the experience of travel. Rather, Mathers emphasizes the paradigm of contemporary tourism and tourists in an increasingly mobile world. Weeding through the details of other scholarly works, Mathers’ intentions with tourists as the subject are to show how at first glance, privileged mobile persons may not appear as ethnographically rich as other more ‘exotic’ categories of oppressed mobile subjects, such as refugees, exiles, and forced migrants. However, their process of negotiating identities as they move through space and time should not be overlooked. In this space of inquiry, Mathers challenges the metaphorical and symbolic attributes revolving around the term ‘tourist’ and juxtaposes its meaning to the term ‘anthropologist’. At this intersection, Mathers highlights the reflexivity of tourists compared to anthropologists as a means to identify the intentions and motivations behind travel itself. For Mathers’ case involving her tourist informants, their aim is to generally experience alterity as a form of travel experience, and they are aware of the ‘reverse gaze’ in light of her (as an anthropologist) questioning; whereas anthropologists (in her context) are motivated by the dynamics of liminality, and about stretching the parameters of understanding fixed concepts of social actors in various places. I will attend more fully to these ‘polar’ roles below.

Mathers thus restates her book as “about the strands that connect people to particular places and to particular identities and the way those strands are made visible by stretching them across nations and continents…I make my site of study the ways the strands that link home and away are forged, mobilized, negotiated, accepted, or rejected” (13). Mathers notes that travel does not necessarily situate the traveler away from home but, rather, that boundaries are continuously erected that demarcate positions of self in contrast to forces of alterity. Mathers explains that for her subjects, these boundaries act as active points of reference to define their American values and identity as they negotiate their positions in various situations.

Returning now to the notions of ‘tourist’ and ‘anthropologist’, Mathers attempts to unpack the tourist’s mobile qualities as transitory and temporal states of being, and of enacting ‘reversed gazes’, while using herself as an example. In this way, American tourists in Africa carried ‘home’ with them in the contexts of nation, race, class, and gender. Mathers claims that for the American tourists, these markers of identification work with popular culture and mass images of representation in order to construct meaning and evaluate foreign exchanges between local residents. Mathers also contrasts this method of interpretation with her experiences, as a South African, on American soil. She explains how a black American student engaged with work regarding South Africa only acknowledged her for her knowledge of the site, but not as a South African with local knowledge with authentic cultural value. What would be interesting here is if Mathers had played with the notion of anthropologists gazing upon other anthropologists in the field. Seeing as most anthropological work is a solitary task (but not exclusively), I do recognize this difficulty. Still, the meticulous unpacking of each position, both tourist and anthropologist, gives us a sense of hostility between the two. As certain agendas may appear the same between both tourist and anthropologist, Mathers makes it clear that it is their mutually exclusive intentions of traveling and gazing at others in the field that distinguishes the result of their after-the-fact claims. In the hypothetical construction of observing other anthropologists in the field as they work, the construction of ‘self’ as ‘anthropologist’ could serve as an effective ‘mirror’ or simulacrum to safeguarding practices of mis/representation.

Mathers then shifts to outlining her participants in different categories. These categories include vacationers, political tourists, international student journalists, and study-abroad students. What is particularly telling about these different categories of participants is not so much their differences. Rather, how as travelers-all, they enact particular identities at conjunctures of cultural diversity and moments and spaces of awkward engagement. For Mathers, it is important to meticulously track the “complex and mediated worlds that they [inhabit]” (40), which exemplify their representational practices. Furthermore, for Mathers, “these linked them to a wider conversation and to an important set of ideas about who they are or might become that is specific to this generation and to those Americans who get to travel to Africa but also extends to a wider set of ideas about what it means to be American” (40).

Our class discussion included various views on representation and voice regarding ‘Africa’. First, the perpetual use of the term ‘Africa’ to explain away one ‘group’ of people was called out as absurd. While we agreed that most people know that Africa is a continent and that it contains a make up of many countries, this manner of reference serves more than an ‘acceptable’ short cut in making colloquial sense, but also plays into the notion that alterity or otherness is homogeneous, and thus dominant issues of poverty, corruption, violence and so on are widespread and mutually understood and felt across the continent. That is, this view understands that Africa is constitutive of the litany of social, economic, and political problems that pollutes the continent. As a result, social scientists that travel abroad are naturally drawn to seeking out and studying the ‘natural phenomena’ of exotic, dirty, and unsavoury elements of human life. This inspired another comment that proposed social scientists as compelled to seek out ‘negative’ aspects of foreign human cultures, rather than ‘positive’ or ‘beautiful’ elements. In doing so, and in response to the overwhelming literature and colonial history of the social sciences, we agreed that it would be somewhat difficult to escape the conundrum of playing the ‘apologist’, which would inevitably highlight the ‘negative’ aspects of Africa.


Mathers, K. (2010). “Introduction.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 1-9.

From the collaborate volume of Auto-Ethnographies (Meneley and Young 2005) to the singularly authored “Reversed Gaze” (Ntarangwi 2010), the works explored thus far in our seminar are each  characterised by a gaze on and critique of Western academic lives and practices. In the next book central to our discussion, Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa (Mathers 2010) we continue gazing close to home at the conceptual and lived ideals of Americans, specifically those formed by United States national(ist) discourse. However, the context of this work is outside the domain of academic institutions. Katheryn Mathers tracks the movements of tourists to and from South Africa to explore her questions of American identity and its connection to and contingency on an idea of ‘Africa’. This anthropological work explores the ideas of ‘Africa’ and ‘African’ imagined by America, and how the particular idea of Africa  sought after and acted upon by media and tourists are formed by and contingent on the shared ethos of Americaness. Mathers’ interest is in the meeting places of these ideologies and images; the meeting of the ‘real’ and the ‘imaged’ and the effect of the collision. The ideas and ideals of ‘Americans’ confront ideas and realities of Africa, and by this intersection personal and national perceptions are revealed.

This book is based on Mathers’ PhD fieldwork which was conducted in Cape Town, South Africa between 1999 and 2002 and affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. Originally from Cape Town, she completed her masters degree at University of Cape Town. She then moved to the United States for graduate studies only to return home to study America.

The introduction to this work begins and ends with reference to Barack Obama, aptly so as he captures, physically and in oration, the American ethos of interest to and complicating Mathers’ research. Obama embodies intersection, which is central to the author’s research question and its direction. He also represents the intersection of America and Africa which characterises the history of colonialism and present neo-colonial socio-political relationship. Obama also vocalised the US’s motivated national ideals of “democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope” (9); abstract values which are hard to conceptualize and materialize, though are encouraged to life through capitalism.

In a nation that combines insidious remnants of a protestant work ethic with a capitalist spirit it is not surprising its ideals promote creation or industriousness; action oriented ideals with value only realisable through productivity. Individuals must seek out channels through which to enact these values, and in the process of performing them feel to discover (or create) a collective American definition. However, a discourse of consensual difference challenges notions of national collectivity and unity, but the intersection of these differences coheres in ‘doing’. The search for identity within the framework of national values took on a new tone post 9/11. This political environment amplified the need to fulfil the expectations of productivity through goodwill, which stirs memories of missionary projects. The mass produced and circulated image of a despondent ‘Africa’ was useful and opportune The continent offered Americans the chance, economically or physically, to enact (not exclusively) secularized redemption (see here for a provocative political commentary on this topic). Though not all the subjects in Mathers’ study missioned to the continent, she states there was always an element of caring involved in their choice of travel, a choice informed by the above mentioned images of ‘Africa which were normalized in American media.

Mathers engages the tourist’s journey in order to explore Americans’ confrontation with their identity as it collides with Africa the continent and ‘Africa’ the reality beyond imaginings. Through their reception by South Africans the tourists came to understand the collective sense of Americanness indiscernible from a subjective, individualistic point of view, but which is a concrete and potent idea held by non-Americans. The study of synchronic experiences in bound, dissociated contexts was not useful to Mathers’ research. Rather, her fieldwork focused on the full range of tourist experience, including the course of travel from home to away and the banal quotidian of the journeys. She followed closely in her informants’ tracks, through the familiar, the uncomfortable, across borders and the “spaces of awkward engagement that caught friction between the idea of Africa and the idea of America” (Tsing 2005 in Mathers 2010).

The tourists, and tourist culture, she studied appears to extend the historical legacy of self-exploration through ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’. This reflects the discussion in our previous reading, “Reversed Gaze”(Ntarangwi 2010), of the centrality of Africa in the history of Anthropology, the discipline which formalized the search for the individual and collective “I”, and the discipline which has maintained a steady, but productive, degree of identity crisis (maybe best resolvable by an appeal to the words of Jean Rouch, “je est un autre”).  Mathers reflexively maintains this tradition and probes simultaneously two dimensions of two national identities; the subjective and objective ‘African’ and ‘America’.

In the pages that follow we will read how Mathers’ anthropology sought after Americans’ perception of their own Americanness, as well as their perceptions of Africa. She seeks to understand what constitutes that perception and how it comes to be confirmed and reified by engagement with ‘Africa’, the idea and the lived experience. Further, she wants to explore how it is that “even after visiting southern Africa, the continent remained, was cemented even, as a homogeneous space of helpless people who just needed a little push from a well-meaning American” (7).

In our discussion of the book we argued that the perceptions of America Mathers sought were as essentialised and reductive as those of ‘Africa’, but perhaps this was an intended and implicit point of commentary in her work.  We understand Mathers’ informants were from a particular American region and this may inform the basis of her generalizations of American identity. But we cannot discount individual life trajectories and are certain Mathers was cognisant of these diverse variables. However, our comments must be contextualized in a preliminary and partial reading of the book and an understanding that further reading will clarify these ideas. I believe, though, there is reason to her framing and seeking (the idea of) collective Americanness. It is such an identity, formed by politically and socially mediated and circulated national values, which promote ties to places like ‘Africa’.

By consuming the African landscape, Mathers argues, it amalgamates with part of a wider American one. Our consumption also continues to create the African, according to Achille Mbembe (5) and in so doing we create (and enact) the equally absurd and reductive idea of the American. These are a sampling of the political and social problematics of the tourist journey we hope, along with the idea of ‘America’, will be taken seriously by Mathers in the pages to follow.