Karlien van der Schyff
| Whiteness and Africanness as pure adventure in Witboy in Africa
Title: Witboy in Africa: Diary of a Troublemaker
Author: Deon Maas
Publication date: April 2010
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The title of Deon Maas’s travelogue, Witboy in Africa, creates the expectation that the narrative will, to some extent, reflect the white travel writer’s questions surrounding whiteness and African identity as he travels through Africa. This initial expectation is strengthened the moment one opens Witboy in Africa and reads the epigraph, taken from the Transkei Cowboys’ “Afreakan”:
Just because I am white skinned
Dont make me European
I dont know Jan van Riebeeck
I dont believe in parliament
I didnt vote till ‘94
So stop breaking down my front door.
Even the first chapter, titled “Two Africans in New York: Harlem, 2002”, further strengthens this expectation when it quotes a black South African as saying: “My white friend here is African. Black Americans are not” (1).
However, this initial expectation could not be more wrong, for Witboy in Africa is anything but a political book concerned with political questions surrounding racial and national identities. In fact, the subtitle, “Diary of a Troublemaker”, is a much more accurate caption for a book in which the author is constantly getting himself into the most thrilling, unbelievably fantastic and occasionally life-threatening adventures.
Maas’s anecdotes are fascinating, witty, mischievous, often rather far-fetched, and occasionally deeply alarming. His travels include managing Lucky Dube’s Rwandan tour, driving his wife and three teenage boys all the way to Malawi in a Mercedes, and making the very first reality television programme in Nigeria. He tells of meeting mercenaries and illegal diamond smugglers in Rwanda, of joining Nigerian oil thieves as they baled buckets of crude oil from beneath a pipeline they had ruptured, of observing pirates operating off the coast of Madagascar and then being surprised by an irate pirate with a panga, of getting very high and utterly paranoid in a Kigali hotel room, of clubbing in Lagos with the Nollywood superstar Chidi Mokeme and, most disturbingly, of walking into the bushes surrounding a roadblock on the road between Gisenya (in Rwanda) and Goma (in the DRC) to relieve himself and coming upon the body of a man with “a small, round hole in the centre of his forehead” (34). The only unifying thread tying Maas’s diverse anecdotes together is his humorous, irreverent tone and unremitting search for adventure.
Why, then, would Witboy in Africa start with such a strong claim about whiteness and African identity, when its main themes seem concerned only with obtaining enough alcohol, avoiding boredom and having outrageous adventures while, almost coincidently, travelling through Africa? In the foreword, Maas writes that the act of writing the book “made [him] think about identity and race”, since his “travels have taught [him] that in Africa race is regarded as extremely important” (viii). However, his account of his travels rarely reveals either the self-reflexive quality of the foreword or the initial question surrounding racial identity, being far more noteworthy for its entertainment value and for Maas’s skill as a storyteller. It is only in the afterword that Maas returns to the question of whiteness and African identity, ending the book with a short reflection on Africanness. “Are you entitled,” he notably asks, “to call yourself a white African without sounding as if you are making a political statement?” (204).
For Maas, the answer is undoubtedly yes. He emphatically argues that he is “an African even though [his] skin is white” (203), but also notes how he constantly has to convince others of this point: “Unfortunately, my whiteness seems to be a problem, because everywhere I travel in Africa I have to explain why I call myself an African” (203). His concluding argument is that he did not see Africa through the eyes of the white travel writer, but experienced Africa simply “as an ordinary South African would”, claiming that “[i]f a black South African were to take a similar trip he would experience the same absurdities” (204).
One could, thus, argue that the political message of Witboy in Africa lies precisely in non-political stories about adventure and amusement – that for Maas, the white travel writer does not have to mull over questions of whiteness and Africanness, because he so strongly locates his own identity as an African in Africa. Evidently, he does not want his claim to Africanness to be a political statement at all. Maas concludes that “most [Africans outside South Africa] welcomed and accepted [him] as African. If only the same could happen in [his] own country” (205). Of course, being both white and African does not negate the implicit privileges that whiteness, whether Maas ever alludes to it or not, still entails; that, for example, Maas can honeymoon in Madagascar “where the annual average income is less than the cost of a meal in a local hotel” (44) and give the maître d’ a tip that “was more than his monthly salary” (59). Still, Witboy in Africa never pretends to be a political treatise on the subtleties of race and identity in Africa. It is an amusing, engaging and compelling travel book written by a master story-teller that cannot fail to leave readers immensely entertained.
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