Guides, maps and tourist fact-boxes often adopt little pictorial symbols: shorthand icons that signal key facts or recommendations. A tiny canoe, and parasol, for example, indicate boating facilities, plus a beach. But less common have been warning shorthands designed positively to identify an unpleasantness or something to avoid. How about (for instance) an overflowing dustbin with wavy lines above it, for instance, indicating ‘smelly’; earmuffs against a hotel’s name, as a ‘noisy’ warning; or a trouser pocket with a wad of notes sticking out: ‘pickpockets operate here’?
Since returning last month from Africa, I’ve been ruminating on the need for at least one new icon, in symbolic form, to be placed in the margin against any description of the hotel, market, or tourist attraction under discussion. The icon would consist in a small, stylised representation, perhaps just in silhouette, of some Rastafarian-style dreadlocks.
A word here about dreadlocks to those who do not know Africa, or know only its tourist hotspots. Real Africans don’t do dreadlocks. It isn’t, properly speaking, an African thing. It’s a Western look. If, with the tightly curled black hair that most black Africans have, you want a variation from that style, you might as a woman sport the elaborate and beautiful tiny plaits one sometimes sees. Some women (few men) straighten their hair; and in men or women it can be clipped quite hard against the scalp, or allowed to luxuriate.
But the dreadlocks look — an intense kind of ringlet where strands fuse into a flail of single ropes — is really West Indian in origin. It is associated with the Rastafarian tendency and may be said, at least in theory, to come from Ethiopia, which Rastas hold to be their spiritual home; but I’ve seen more dreadlocks in Kingston, Jamaica, or in Peckham, south-east London, than in Addis Ababa.
From the Caribbean, dreadlocks reached London decades ago, and it is from the British West Indian community (or a minority element within it), and the worldwide popularity of Afro-Caribbean ska, rock steady and reggae music, that dreadlocks have acquired their aura of black male cool. This came relatively late to the continent of Africa itself, and to this day nobody in a rural African village, and very few people even in the towns and cities, would wear dreadlocks or think the style anything but an exotic import.
And here I must be candid. Most ordinary people in Africa would see dreadlocks as not quite respectable: as a baseless attempt to assume a Western-style swagger and sophistication. And many would associate the look with fecklessness, unreliability and an undisciplined lifestyle. God-fearing Africans, especially women, would suppose a dreadlocks wearer to be quite possibly good-for-nothing. I’ve seen Africans in the street or market glance at a brother sporting dreadlocks with a look of embarrassed disapproval.
So why is the style worn, if not to ingratiate the wearer with his own community? Perverse as it may seem, you’ll most reliably encounter dreadlocks in places with a significant concentration of white tourists. And the association which is almost automatic is with young European overlanders. Where there are overlanders, and especially white overlanding women, there are black dreadlocks.
I have a theory that overlanders in Africa — the twenty-something, gap-year or post-graduation Cairo-to-Cape (or more commonly Marrakech-to-Johannesburg) tribe — are, of all tourists in Africa, the category who have least real engagement with the places they travel through. Well-heeled tourists on cruises, or middle-class families on safari-based packages to South, East or Central Africa, don’t see much of life as it is lived across most of the continent, but from their hotels or cruise ships they do make incursions. Tours are arranged for them: visits to villages; encounters with tribal dancers; walks with Masai tribesmen … these all have a strongly artificial element, and at most dip only a toe into the water; but they are not completely fake. The people the tourists meet are usually genuine, and the idea (understood by both sides of the encounter) is to learn. Meet and talk to the Sunday Telegraph travel-section-style tourists one meets in Africa, and you do encounter an openness to the new environment, and a curiosity about unfamiliar places. For some of their time in Africa they are — as it were — facing outwards.
Walk into an encampment of overlanders, or a bar, beach resort or eatery which overlanders frequent (their organisers always, but always, take them to the same places) and the aura is of inwardness. They have typically been confined with each other, cheek-by-jowl, for weeks. Squashed together in lorries, off-road vehicles or vans, sleeping next to each other in or around their vehicles, and eating always as a group, they now know each other very well. Though they don’t always like each other there can be no escape. Some of them are having affairs with each other. Some of them have broken off affairs with each other. Some have been ill. Many are short of money.
Their travel and accommodation has often been uncomfortable, occasionally problematical, and there is the air among them of a barracks, after low-intensity warfare, now on rest and recreation. They view outsider-Westerners, particularly independent tourists with whom they brush by chance, with suspicion. They sit with each other drinking beer, discussing exchange rates and local prices, and looking sadly dull-eyed. They are Out of Africa in a way that wasn’t intended.
And in each destination they arrive at, they — particularly the women, but to some extent the ‘let’s share a joint, my friend’ men — are the natural prey of the local dreadlocks brigade. As with the tick-eating egrets that hop around in the vicinity of hippopotamuses, the moment you see a couple of dreadlocks at or near a food stall, bar or market, you know there will be white travellers, probably overlanders, nearby. The dreadlocks’ habitual greeting cry is ‘Hi, friend! Where are you from?’ Soon you will be buying a beer, financing the purchase of some marijuana, or (if you are a woman) being rather skilfully chatted up.
Overlanders think this is Africa. I keep trying to stop myself being sniffy about this. I tell myself (which is true) that these are the young people who didn’t choose a package holiday to Ibiza, who wanted to do something more real. And I remind myself that it takes guts, penniless at 20, to launch yourself into a new continent; that overlanding may be the only cheap and secure way; and that, after this first taste, some will return, independently, for a deeper immersion.
But still there’s something unlikeable about doing a continent in the manner of a military squad, minus the weaponry. ‘Peace Corps’ is the American name of a specific programme, but expresses a similarly oxymoronic idea.
These visitors could, if they chose, go to see the work of a church mission and its chapel and hospital; or visit a lively, crowded government junior school. They would be welcome in either place. And as they approached these scenes of real Africa, something surprising would happen. Their dreadlocked friends would melt away.
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.