The recent furore over the issue of promoting the body shapes of Uganda’s women as a tourist attraction opens up a can of worms over how far, is too far, in chasing the tourist dollar. By Kalundi Serumaga
An entirely predictable row has followed the Ugandan Minister of Tourism, Godfrey Kiwanda’s proposal to promote Ugandan women of a certain body type as a tourist attraction. He offi cially launched the ‘Miss Curvy Uganda’ pageant as part of the ‘Tulambule’ (‘Let’s tour’) campaign to attract foreign visitors.
Every usual position has been taken on this by critics and commentators, from the expected advocates of women’s rights to the clergy (Muslim and Christian alike), and every point in between.
Many drew comparisons with the gruesome 1800s tale of Sarah Baartman, the KhoiKhoi woman who was abducted from Africa, and made into a live exhibit (and then later died) in a ‘human zoo’ display in Europe, where visitors would examine her bodily curves.
This is not to say that Ugandan women endowed with curves are particularly camera-shy. Voluptuousness is actually one of the aesthetic values in many an African society, as every reader of this magazine surely knows by now. The vast majority of well-endowed ladies are quite satisfied, to say the least, with the contours. This is not just a Ugandan or African phenomenon.
Beauty pageants celebrating body types not normally sanctified by the Western fashion industry are regularly held in various parts of the world.
So the essential problem here seems to be one of agency: who gets to decide who or what is to be ‘looked at’, and who shall benefit from the ‘looking’ after it is done, and in what way?
It actually raises a wider question of how those governing in many parts of Africa view the bounty within their particular borders. There is an element of ‘plunder opportunism’ in some cases. Take the standard wildlife and nature tourism as an example.
Voluptuousness is actually one of the aesthetic values in many an African society, as every reader of this magazine surely knows by now. The vast majority of well-endowed ladies are quite satisfied, to say the least, with the contours.
In a documentary film project I was involved in nearly a decade ago, we filmed many indigenous residents near the summit of Mt Elgon in eastern Uganda. Their complaints about mistreatment by offi cers of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) were numerous. The crux of their accusations was that the UWA’s zeal in driving ‘encroachers’ out of the forest was in fact a cover for them to let in and protect a racket involving illegal lumber.
Then there is appropriation. This is the same ministry that adopted a certain ubiquitous type of street food here, known as ‘Rolex’, as an item to be promoted for tourism. The difference, as one commentator pointed out, is that – unlike the famous street food markets of south-eastern Asian cities – virtually nothing about it, except perhaps a certain level of practical ingenuity, can be described as indigenous.
The basic ‘Rolex’ ingredients are wheat flour, which is largely imported from neighbouring Kenya (having been introduced there as part of colonial commercial agriculture), fried into a chapati(Indian), which is then wrapped around an omelette (French origins?), laced with vegetables.
This did not stop the Tourism Minister from getting himself photographed energetically engaging with one, for the sake of the nation.
Mindless pursuit of tourism dollar
In Kenya this mindset has long been practised and raised to the level of an art form. If a human being does feature in a tourism advert, most likely it will be an exoticised Maasai or Nandi pastoralist; otherwise it is wildlife all the way.
This mindless pursuit of ‘tourist attraction’ had reached the point where, about a decade ago, the Kenyan passport was redesigned to feature an image of one wild beast or another on its pages, as a form of subliminal advertising presumably, aimed at all the passport officers of the world.
I once asked a Nairobi cultural workers’ gathering what their reaction would be if, following the same logic, one day, their images appeared on passport pages. They were not amused.
Tourism, culture and entertainment industries generate revenues and provide jobs. While they are often the mainstay of some developing countries, they also add considerably to the national coffers of industrialised countries.
In 2017, travel and tourism worldwide generated $7.6tn or roughly 10% of global GDP and provided 292m jobs. In the UK for example, the industry accounts for roughly 9% of GDP, generating around $127bn, while Spain depends on this industry for almost 17% of i t s GDP.
The whole of Africa, by comparison, makes around $41bn from travel and tourism; while France alone attracts almost three times the number of visitors, 82m, as Africa, which has around 30m (Thailand’s Bangkok attracts over 20m visitors on its own, by the way).
Given these figures, it is understandable that our countries will go all out to lure the tourist dollar and look for highways and byways to increase what they believe will persuade more tourists to visit them. But how far is too far?
First, there is the danger of creating a local population that believes its role is to make foreigners happy, not to mention reinforcing the same already existing notion in the minds of the same foreigners.
Policy makers sometimes forget that what attracts foreign visitors is the cultural specificity of the destination, i.e. what makes France French, or Thailand uniquely Thai.
Secondly, Africa, like many poor parts of the world, has been the destination for an established sexual tourism industry. Like a wealthy, but criminal cousin in the family, this fact is known, but not fully acknowledged.
Thirdly, there is the real problem of creating a whole genre of art and culture designed to meet tourist expectations. Beyond ‘airport art’, there are whole notions now of pseudo-African performance and expression, a kind of ‘stage African’ that stultifies and ossifies artistic expression.
A place known as the Bomas of Kenya on the Nairobi outskirts used to be a major venue where this kind of practice flourished in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps the performance values have now improved.
How far is too far?
In a couple of tweets on this issue of ‘curves’, the activist Bwesigye says: “I think the critique of the curvy women thing is incomplete without factoring in race, colonialism, and capitalism. Tourism is an evil business. It always has been. Even the wildlife nonsense comes from the same racist archive.
“Tourism,” he continued, “in the African and Caribbean sense is inherently about Europeans and European-descended people consuming what they imagine is the nonhuman other. So the curves thing is within that logic… Tourism is meant to dehumanise.”
It’s a debatable point since the industry worldwide makes some accommodation to fit into certain stereotypes that foreigners hold but it comes down to a matter of taste and how far is too far.
What makes the US, Europe or Asia attractive is being able to find the people and cultures there unique in their own specific ways, not distorted to fit into the culturally loaded expectations of others.
For example, Africans are by nature and inclination friendly and welcoming to strangers. They also have a wonderful sense of humour and irony that helps them get through a rough day. We also have wonderful music and some claim that Africans are the world’s greatest natural dancers.
The curvy women thing is incomplete without factoring in race, colonialism, and capitalism. Tourism is an evil business. It always has been. Even the wildlife nonsense comes from the same racist archive.
We also have a wide variety of delicious food, fruits, vegetables and edible nuts. African beer is a thing of beauty. And I have not even mentioned the extraordinary landscapes and the fact that Africa is the last redoubt of flora and fauna that has been wiped off the face of the earth elsewhere.
This is what Africa has to offer and the world is welcome to it. Our idea of aesthetics is also uniquely our own. In some parts of the continent, a well filled-out, curvy figure is the acme of beauty; in other parts, slimness in prized. Our sense of aesthetics is part of the package of what makes Africa, Africa.
There is no need to push our natural shapes as a tourist attraction to be gawped at as something strange. Doing so makes it both insulting and artificial and hence, ironically, not attractive at all.