Erik Hersman and I look a bit alike. We’re both beefy, balding white dudes who spend a lot of our time thinking and talking about Africa. We hang out at many of the same development and technology conferences. He’s someone I always enjoy reading, and someone I’m proud to call a friend. A post from Erik a few weeks back on his (brilliant, must-read) blog, White African, got me thinking a bit about what we have in common and what’s different about our backgrounds, and our roles in the tech and development community. (This isn’t entirely a surprise, as the post involved Erik weighing in on a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot this fall and trying to figure out, and reacting to one of my posts on the topic.)
Erik’s parents were bible translators, and he was raised in Kenya and Sudan, studying at Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya before spending his adulthood in the US. He lives in Orlando, Florida with his wife and a passel of children, though he spends an enormous amount of time focused on sub-Saharan Africa, managing the AfriGadget blog and helping lead the team behind Ushahidi (both of which should be familiar to readers of this blog, and are worth visiting, if you’re not.) In a sense, he’s suspended somewhere between central Florida and east Africa, one foot in either world.
Erik in Southern Sudan, 1978
In the language of sociologist Dr. Ruth Hill Useem, Erik is a third culture kid. He was raised both in the culture of his parents, and in the cultures of the people he grew up with. Useem argues that kids raised in this way end up developing a third culture by combining elements of their “birth” culture and the local culture they encounter. Useem argues that children who go through this process – the kids of military personnel, missionaries, diplomats and corporate executives – often have more in common with each other than with other kids from their birth culture. More recent research on third culture kids suggests that TCKs, as adults, are often well-adapted to live and thrive in a globalized world. They’re often multilingual as well as multicultural, are generally extremely good at living and working with people from different backgrounds. As a downside, some TCKs report feeling like they’re not really at home anywhere, either in their birth culture, culture they were raised in or any new culture.
Erik’s not just a TCK, he’s also a bridge figure. By “bridge figure”, I mean someone who acts as an interpreter between cultures, introducing people who look at the world in one way to another way of looking at the world. The term has a murky genesis – Xiao Qiang and I started using the term to describe the work bloggers were doing translating and contextualizing ideas from one culture into another. Shortly after, Hossein Derakshan gave a memorable talk at the Berkman Center, explaining that blogs in Iran act as windows, bridges and cafÃ©s. I’ve been using the term “bridgeblogger” ever since to refer to people who are building connections between people from different cultures via their online work, and “bridge figures” to people engaged in the larger process of building understanding between cultures.
To understand what’s going on in another part of the world often requires a guide. The best guides have a deep understanding both of the culture you’re encountering and the culture you’re rooted in. Erik is able to do things most Americans aren’t able to do. He can wander around Gikomba, Nairobi and talk to local metalworkers in Swahili, and find out about the process of turning the drive shaft of a Land Rover into a cold chisel… because he’s a Kenyan. And he can tell the story in a way that’s interesting to an audience of American geeks.. because he’s an American geek. Lots of people have one of these skillsets – bridge figures are lucky enough to have both. Third culture kids are well-positioned to act as bridges because they’ve got strong roots in two or more cultures, but it doesn’t guarantee that all will take on the task of bridging.
Bridge figures have lived substantial parts of their life in at least two cultures. Sometimes this is a function of physical relocation – an African student who pursues higher education in Europe, an American Peace Corps volunteer who settles into life in Niger semi-permanently. It can also be a function of the job you do – a professional tour guide who spends her days leading travelers through Dogon country may end up knowing more about the peculiarities of American and Australian culture than a Malian who lives in New York City but interacts primarily with fellow immigrants.
Merely being bicultural isn’t sufficient to qualify you as a bridge figure. Motivation matters as well. Bridge figures often care passionately about one of the cultures they inhabit and want to celebrate it to as wide an audience as possible. One of the profound surprises for me in working on Global Voices has been discovering that many of our community members aren’t motivated by a sense of post-nationalist globalism, but by a form of nationalism. Many of our volunteers live in the US or Europe but come from developing nations, and their work on Global Voices is motivated, at least in part, by explaining their home cultures to the people they’re now living and working with. Erik’s work on AfriGadget is motivated, in part, by a strong desire to explain to Americans the creativity and innovation that characterize African approaches to technology. Equally, his work on projects like Ushahidi bring some of the best thinking around technology in developed nations to bear on African problems.
Not everyone wants to build bridges between the cultures they’ve encountered. Immigrants – and especially the children of immigrants – often reject their birth culture and embrace the culture they’ve emigrated to in a way that makes then poorly positioned to act as cultural bridges. Others reject the culture they’ve moved to, staying rooted in their birth culture and consciously remaining outside the culture they’re living within. In Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, the protagonist and narrator, a Pakistani Muslim working in the New York financial sector, rejects his role as a “janissary” for American capitalism and becomes a leader of fundamentalist students in his native country. We expect the narrator to act as a bridge, explaining his home country to a Western reader – when he fails to act as a bridge and turns on his audience, it’s a deeply surprising narrative moment.
My personal path towards engagement with Africa is a different one than Erik’s. I grew up in suburban Westchester County, New York, not in southern Sudan. Neither of my parents were missionaries or even world travelers, and I didn’t meet any Africans until high school, when a shy Cameroonian girl joined our class and threw the grading curve in French classes entirely out of whack. (Who knew Africans spoke French?) I didn’t become interested in African culture in a sustained way until I started studying African music in college, a decision that had more to do with the influence of a brilliant teacher initially than my interest in the field. The fact that my time in Ghana in 1993-4 was a positive one owes a great deal to the intervention of dear friends who helped bridge cultural divides for me.
Me in Ghana, 1993.
I am not a bridge figure. Fond as I am of sub-Saharan Africa in general and Ghana in particular, I lack the nuanced cultural and linguistic understanding to explain contemporary African news, politics and life to fellow Americans except as an informed outsider. On the other hand, I’m more or less obsessed with African politics and development, and spend a great deal of time and energy trying to learn more and to share what I learn with others. My initial fascination with Ghana has turned into a more general fascination with people and places I know little about. Somewhere in the process of discovering Accra, I became a xenophile.
Ghanaian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is leading a drive to revive the term “cosmopolitan” as a way of describing people positioned to thrive in a globally interconnected world. He traces the concept back to he Cynics, who saw themselves not just as loyal to their individual polis, but citizens of the wider cosmos, and offers a path forward for the identity. Cosmopolitans, to Appiah, are those who take seriously the notion of obligations to those who are not our own kin, and take an interest in the beliefs and practices those others, striving to understand, if not accept or adopt, other ways of being.
In “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers“, Appiah uses his own experience as the child of a Ghanaian mother and an English mother, educated both in Ghana and the UK, living in the US, to explain the complexities of cultural encounter and identity in a connected world. But using Appiah as our model cosmopolitan risks making the definition too narrow. I’d characterize Appiah as a classic bridge figure, raised with feet in two cultures, and a career that’s focused on connecting Ghanaian and European approaches to philosophy. But his definition of cosmopolitanism leaves space for xenophiles as well, individuals who commit to an open, curious, receptive approach to the world, actively seeking to understand the complexity and diversity of the world we’re living in.
Bridge figures build bridges between cultures, and xenophiles walk across them. When Mahmood Al-Youssif, Ahmed Al-Omran or Amira Al Hussaini write online in English to explain life on the Arabian peninsula, they’re not writing for local audiences – they’d write in Arabic if they were. They’re inviting people who don’t know about or don’t understand the region to learn more, and those who know a bit about the region to stay connected and in touch. Bridging is a frustrating process when no one crosses the bridge – it’s far easier to talk to people who already speak your language and understand your culture. Blogs die without readers; bridgeblogs die without xenophile readers.
It’s been a challenge for me to define xenophiles as a category without falling victim to definitions that are trivial or superficial. It’s easy to dismiss the idea by suggesting that everyone who eats sushi and listens to world music is – or considers herself to be – a xenophile. Too loose a definition and “xenophile” ends up sounding like a synonym for “liberal”, “multicultural or even “politically correct”, which isn’t what I’m intending.
Xenophilia is about connecting with people, not with cultural artifacts or other things. Liking Japanese food or Senegalese hiphop doesn’t make you a xenophile – xenophilia is about making connections across language and cultural barriers motivated by your interest in making better sushi or translating Daara J lyrics. Xenophilia is broader than the love for a specific culture or an aspect of that culture – it’s a broader fascination with the complexity and diversity of the world. Xenophilia changes your behavior, especially your behavior in seeking for information, leading you to pay attention not just to the parts of the world that have caught your attention, but to others that you know little about.
While it’s easy to define xenophilia in a way that trivializes it, there’s also a danger of making a definition too onerous. My suspicion is that many xenophiles have lived in or close to another culture long enough to lose the certainty that their home culture is the “right way” to think about the world. (My time in Ghana gradually eroded my certainty that people in other nations secretly wanted to be Americans, or that the American approach to social organization, especially to the role of the extended family, was the right way to do things. This was a deeply uncomfortable and unsettling process.) But I don’t want to limit the definition of xenophilia to those of us lucky enough to have the chance to live and work outside our native cultures.
Most of us can’t aspire to be bridge figures – we’re simply not rooted in multiple cultures. But we can aspire to be xenophiles. It’s my argument that we need to. The world we live in is so complicated and interconnected that many problems, both big and small, require openness, understanding and the ability to communicate with people from different cultures. Imagine trying to solve climate change without talking with Indian and Chinese citizens… or living a full life in an urban neighborhood without connecting with your neighbors who speak different languages.
My work the past decade has focused on cultivating xenophiles. Ultimately, Geekcorps was more successful in building a group of knowledgeable, dedicated and committed geeks who care about the developing world than it was in training geeks in developing nations. Global Voices is a space filled with bridge figures, desperate to reach xenophiles through whatever media we can access. Geekcorps taught me that it isn’t hard to build xenophiles if you can afford to buy a lot of airplane tickets – working in another country is a surefire way to ensure you’re going to need to learn to communicate with people from another culture, and is likely to produce the change in perspective that leads to xenophilia. Global Voices is (in part) an experiment to see whether xenophilia can be cultivated without plane tickets, offering the chance to connect with people in other parts of the world through their stories, videos and pictures.
The Internet Age should be a golden age for bridge figures and for xenophiles. The same tools that make it possible for me to obsess over sumo or argue about the Ghanaian elections from Pittsfield, MA allow Erik to tour you through Nairobi without you leaving your house. A major challenge is that these tools enable all sorts of other behaviors, including the ability to cocoon ourselves in information that’s unthreatening and unsurprising. The challenge bridge figures face is in finding people willing to listen; the challenge for the xenophile is locating and listening to these different voices without being overwhelmed by the roar of the internet.