27 January 2008


A friend from Russia sent me a message on facebook, commenting on my photos of South Sudan. I caught myself, in responding, using the word "surreal," which I have a problem with on so many levels. First of all, surreal is one of those words that Westerners use when they go to Africa as they are romanticizing things like refugees fleeing across borders. You know, "the column of refugees snaking across the narrow bridge was surreal against the setting sun." Blah blah nonsense. It goes with the word "exotic," which I also hate, because it tends to be code for "not like us, and therefore less modern and smart, but awfully pretty. Let's take advantage."

Secondly, surreal is something you say when you are talking about a life that you think isn't or shouldn't be yours. Someone else's, maybe, but not yours. Either you don't want that life, or it's so different that you can't really imagine it. But really, truly, it's not that different. No one's life is. Sure, we do different things and we have different problems and some of us have frighteningly smaller problems than others, but it's just living. We do it because we have to, and get through what we have to get through, and enjoy the moments we can enjoy.

And so I am annoyed with myself for using the word. Of course, things are surreal when you look back, because they are no longer real. But when I was in South Sudan, it was very, very real. It was hot, first of all, which I think I mentioned before, and it's very hard to feel surreal about anything when it's that hot. Yeah, yeah, you have the cows and the facial scarring and the kids who wear no clothes, and that's all very National Geographic, but you live, you know? I had a favorite outfit (cotton skirt and cotton shirt) that was strategically chosen as the lightest clothes I owned. I sunburned my scalp where I parted my hair every single day, so I had to keep moving it around. I sat with my computer on my knee under the porch of my tukul and emailed all of you. I longed for a cool drink at lunchtime. I avoided going to the bathroom in the middle of the day because the pit latrine made of metal sheets was absolutely the hottest place I've ever been. Very, very real.

Oof. Can't believe I even thought that word. It needs to go down in infamy with "haunting" and "savage" as words that should never again be used to describe Africa.

(P.S. There are photos on facebook, if we are friends there. If we aren't, we should be!)


Monday's Child said...

I'd like to be your facebook friend!!! hahahaha how cute am I.. I feel like I've gone back to kindergarten.. "will you be my friend?" Anyway I think facebook is fab but am not a pro so I will give you my full name and you can add me if you so wish: Vadiay Kouchek-zadeh (there can't be too many of us about)

Aaron Stewart said...

I responded to your comment. :)

sylvia/ticklethepear said...

thanks for reading - you can add me on facebook too! sylvia cabus