The Africa pavilion at Shanghai’s Expo 2010 is a veritable hall of wonders. It’s much like a trade show—one of these big business conferences where a bunch of competitors set up their stands in some large convention hall and try to look better than the company next door. But these stands weren’t put up by boring entities like IBM or Schweinfurt Bearingsball Gesellschaft mit Beschränkter Haftung; these stands were put up by Botswana, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde. All of sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of three or four countries big enough to warrant their own pavilions, all bunched up together in this marvelous, noisy, humming pretend-continent.
It was bliss.
I knew I had to visit Ghana. I was in Shanghai just after the Ghanaian team beat the United States in the World Cup (and before they lost to Uruguay) and I wanted to go and officially congratulate them (actually, I suppose I can’t officially congratulate them, since I’m not an official anything, but you get the point). I then discovered that it’s pretty difficult to find any particular country in the African pavilion. That being said, this is Africa (in a way), and the whole idea of having anything as organized and rigid as a plan is antithetical to the African spirit. You have to roll with it. So I began wandering around.
My first stop was Ivory Coast. Their stand consisted of a round design/separator thing that was, I guess, supposed to represent strangler fig vines or something. Inside were a few relatively unimaginative photos and a desk at which sat a woman stamping little fake passports.
The line to get your passport stamped was long and slow. I leaned over toward her.
“Is this all you do all day?” I asked in French.
She grunted and nodded.
“Is that a real visa stamp?”
“Oh no. You think it’s this easy to get into my country?”
I was going to ask her more, but she looked pretty harried and there were people complaining to her because she wasn’t stamping fast enough.
I was soon to learn that the major attraction of the African pavilion seemed to be the passport stamps. I found out that these were extremely popular, and that some people were even going around and getting a number of passports stamped, then selling the completed ones. I really don’t see the point of that—I suppose the whole passport thing is kind of a gimmick to get people to visit different countries, but why on earth would you buy a pre-stamped passport—so that you can sit back in later years and fondly recall warm memories of something you didn’t do? Sometimes I feel stupid, there are so many things people do that I cannot understand.
Anyway, from Ivory Coast I headed over to Senegal. I’m French enough to feel a certain connection with Senegal, which was a former colony of France (most of West Africa was a former colony of France). Many Senegalese immigrate to France, and I have a couple of friends from the country. The stand is nice, with lots of carvings and drums. I started asking a couple of questions and I was quickly introduced to the director, who invited me into his office.
The director’s office was the kind of office you’d expect to see in an underfunded startup. The furniture was roughly adequate, there were some scuffs on the wall, the carpet was thin, and there were a few cardboard boxes lying around. Behind the desk sat a large, pleasant man with a booming voice.
“I’ve been here three years,” he explained. “I came to China to do my PhD, I’m just finishing it up. When the Expo came along, the Senegalese government asked me if I wanted to run our delegation. I was very happy to accept.”
I asked him what kinds of questions Chinese visitors ask when they visit the stand.
“They ask if the photos are really from Senegal. They don’t believe it’s that beautiful. I explain that it’s far more beautiful than that. Sometimes Chinese men who have been in Senegal on business come by, they tell me they hadn’t expected our country to be as wonderful as it is. It can surprise you.”
I explained the story of my former drummer. Years ago, when I was a musician, I played with a Swedish drummer and a Senegalese bass player. The bass player complained to the drummer that he was too technical, he lacked “rhythm in his soul.” He convinced him to come to Senegal with him one summer, telling him that rhythm was invented in Africa. They spent weeks hanging out on the beach playing the Djembé. Our drummer came back with rhythm in his soul, a great love of Senegal, and a marked appreciation for the beauty of African women. He even learned some Wolof.
“I’m not surprised,” the director said. “Everyone who comes to Senegal is changed. And, you know, no one is more hospitable than the Senegalese. You build a house in Senegal, you make sure there are two extra rooms for your friends; you make dinner for your family, you make enough for a few more, in case your friends drop by. We always have time for people.”
I thanked him and said that he was proof of this, since during our discussion he had juggled a number of phone calls and visits, conducting business in English, French, Chinese and Wolof without ever asking me to leave or making me feel out of place.
It made sense after Senegal to go to The Gambia, since Gambia is a tiny sliver of a country almost entirely surrounded by Senegal (think colonial dispute between France and Britain)). The entire stand seemed to consist of nice pictures, some drums, and a long line to get your passport stamped. Next to The Gambia was Somalia, which had a surreal stand with an oceanic motif. OK, Somalia does have a coastline (a pirate-infested one, for that matter), but it’s certainly not the first thing that comes to mind. Nevertheless, the walls are covered floor to ceiling in a blue-water pattern, in front of which, in one corner, is a family of fake camels. Go figure.
Next to Somalia was Djibouti, one of the rare French-speaking countries on the East coast of Africa. Djibouti is tiny, really just a port, but the stand was beautiful, with lots of examples of local crafts and a wicker hut in the middle. It was impossible to get through this hut, though, since there were two chairs on either side, under some things hanging on the walls of the hut. You put a chair near something pretty in the Expo and everyone is going to line up to get their picture taken. Since you don’t want to walk in between the photographers and their subjects, you wait. And then you wait again.
In fact, Chinese want to take pictures of everyone in front of everything. A lot of the African delegations had mannequins in traditional garb, there are inevitably lines of people waiting to get their pictures taken in front of these, which draws bigger crowds to see what the fuss is. Likewise for fake camels (also to be seen in the Eritrean stand, as well as a couple others), or the fake castle façade of the Sudanese stand. Sudan is strange—upon entering the exhibit, you are presented with a list of the theoretical accomplishments of the current president, explained in painful detail. Behind this is a case with different kinds of nuts, under glass. All kinds of nuts, in wooden bowls. A Chinese man pressed his nose up against glass studying these nuts, drawing other people to see what was so special about the nuts. Someone then had their picture taken standing next to the nuts. I left.
I couldn’t help but wonder why the Guinean stand labeled all of its photos in only Chinese and French. I asked the head of the delegation (in French) who replied that they had labeled things in Chinese because they were in China and in French because that was Guinea’s official language.
“What about English?” I asked.
“Who cares about English? Who cares about anything but China? We are here to teach the Chinese that Guinea exists. These people will run the world soon, after all…” He then slapped me on the shoulder. “Sorry to break it to you,” he said.
I headed over to Mali for a little consolation. First, the exhibit looked nice, and I have to say that I adore Malian music. I’m a big fan of Ali Farka Touré, as well as the great Kora player, Toumani Diabaté. Recently, I’ve also discovered the haunting voice of Rokia Traori. I had a chat with the director and asked him if Chinese appreciated their music.
“They don’t appreciate much,” he replied. “They come to line up for their passport stamps. We play our music over the tourist videos, but they rarely ask questions. Sometimes they ask what the statues are made of.” He indicated the beautiful, wooden African sculptures along the walls.
“What do you tell them?”
“I tell them they’re made of wood.”
A Chinese woman came over and asked if she could take his picture. He said no, he was speaking with me. She then asked if she could take my picture. I asked why? I’m not Malian. She left.
“I don’t understand the Chinese,” the director continued. “It’s a tough culture. They’re always in a hurry, never very warm. We are a warm people.” He explained that he spent a lot of time with the other West Africans from the expo. “Makes me feel more at home.”
The director from Togo was of the same opinion. The Togolese exhibit was quite different from the other African stands. It was all pictures of modern buildings and giant (empty) highways.
“The other countries didn’t get it,” he said, “the theme here is supposed to be modern, better cities (this was news to me). They all show traditional crafts and pictures of indigenous garb. And they all have those damn drums lying around. A lot of Chinese tell me that we are the only ones who conformed to the original idea.”
“So a lot of people come?”
He looked around. “They only come to get their little passport stamps. I can’t wait to go home, man, and I’ve been here for four years.”
I stopped by Gabon, which was probably the most attractive exhibit in the African pavilion, with a rope bridge and a little pond. There I talked to a painter who enthusiastically showed me his work and asked me to come back the next day so we could talk some more. We shook hands in that strong, hand-slapping African way, and then I headed to Ghana.
Cardboard cutouts of the country’s football (soccer, if you must) players hang on the outside of the exhibit. The inside has the requisite drums and wooden statuary. The delegation’s director was busy, but I spoke with one of the Ghanaian women who worked at the exhibit. I congratulated her on her country’s victory over the United States.
Her face broke out in a broad grin. “Oh, thank you,” she said. She was even more happy when I told her I was American and that I had been rooting for them to win anyway.
This is true. I’m sorry, but it is. I’m not really much of a sports fan, when it comes down to it (apart from tennis, but that’s different, because I play a hell of a lot of it). I am a fan of joy, however, and let’s face it, if the United States were to win the World Cup, relatively few people would care. I’m willing to bet that if the States had beaten Ghana, it wouldn’t even have rated the front story on many newspaper sports pages. If Ghana were to win, all of Africa would jump up and down so vigorously that earthquakes would be felt in Australia; the sound of their singing would deafen whales in the Atlantic and the drums they would beat would cause tremors in Brazil. They would party like no one has ever partied before. If you know any Africans, you know what I mean.
I told her, “If you win, Ghana will shut down for a month in celebration.”
“Oh no,” she replied. “Much more than a month.”
She went on to say that all of the other Africans at the expo had come to visit the Ghanaian exhibit to express their joy and their support. “But we don’t have enough men,” she said. “There are only two men working the Ghanaian delegation, and four women. We women can not make enough noise, we need more men, so they can shout louder during the games.”
I asked if any Chinese had congratulated them.
“Oh yes,” she said. “As we have progressed in the tournament, more and more Chinese come to learn exactly what Ghana is like, and where it is.”
“Imagine if you win.”
Her eyes lit up like searchlights and she spread her arms wide. “We would never be able to greet them all!” She exclaimed.
While visiting the pavilions of unvisited countries was in no way a substitute for visiting the countries themselves, it did allow me to meet people from these nations, and what is a nation if not its people? Nature sculpts wonders all over the earth, showing no favor (except with respect to fjords) but it is the people who breathe life into nations, who give them souls. The pavilions at the Expo are perhaps like the extra rooms in a Senegalese house, places to invite your friends who can’t quite make it all the way to the table. Go, ignore the little passports and speak to the people manning the exhibits—it is travel in a microcosm. It is a good thing.