Africa, Interviews

The camel artist

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Since quitting his job as a middle school teacher in Washington, D.C. in 2010 to travel West Africa, Phil Paoletta has discovered a continent at odds with that portrayed in the mainstream media. Now established in Africa running a restaurant and catering business, he talks about ‘slow travel’, western misconceptions and why he now teaches people how to draw camels.

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How did you end up in West Africa?

I had studied abroad in Ghana when I was in college and I simply wanted to go back. I originally chose Ghana to study abroad due to an obsession with highlife music. Once there, I fell in love with many other aspects of Ghanaian life and culture. Each year that I was teaching, I put a bit of money aside with the eventual goal being to take a substantial trip in West Africa. After three years, I had a decent amount saved and I began the search for a plane ticket.

What is it like to actually live there?

Living here has given me an opportunity to get comfortable with the pace of life and the culture. I became proficient in French in Cote d’Ivoire [Ivory Coast] and I have learned a good deal of Bambara in Mali. Between the two countries, I have what feels like five or six families. I feel less self-conscious now. I have routines and habits and I know how to get around most places. I also have a sense for interacting with people – things like when to joke, when to greet, and so on.

You teach people how to draw camels, and have even released an eBook about it. What is the thinking behind this?

Camel drawing is all about engaging people. It is one of the best icebreakers. Ask someone to draw a camel and they will likely start laughing. It’s just a bizarre request. If you can actually sit down and draw a camel with them then you may end up with a really fun exchange. I used the idea of camel drawing as a ‘life changing activity’ to get people’s attention. It’s obvious to most people that it’s tongue-in-cheek. At the same time, I’ve used the howtodrawcamels.com site to draw attention to individuals and organisations that are solving community problems in Mali.

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You also practice ‘slow travel’. What benefits has that brought you?

My itinerary is usually blank after I arrive somewhere. The only thing that is understood is that I will most likely spend a good amount of time in the destination (provided I like it of course). Slow travel is my preferred mode of travel because it allows you to figure a place out, to the extent that it is possible for an outsider. When it comes to learning local jokes, discovering new music, making new friends and building relationships – a lot of these things are hard to do if you pass through a place quickly. You will learn more if you take your time.

Compared to what you expected of it, in what ways has Africa surprised you?

I had already travelled in Africa in 2005, so I had an idea of what to expect this time around. That said, I continue to be surprised by new things. In particular, I have been blown away by local languages this past year. It can be easy to look at a language like Bambara, which lacks verb conjugation and doesn’t have many of the articles that we have, and call it primitive or simplistic. Once you start learning the language, however, you realise that words often have layered meanings and there is great depth and elegance to many phrases. Again, these are things that are much easier to appreciate if you take your time in a place.

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What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about Africa in the western world?

The gap between perception and reality with respect to Africa is astonishing. The obvious misconceptions involve Africa being monolithic, and a home for not much more than poverty and strife. Other misconceptions that can be even more troubling involve Africans being lazy or incapable of improving their own situation. Many of these misconceptions are propagated by media story lines but in some cases NGOs do some of the damage as well. Anyone who visits, however, will discover the other side to things, and the complexity and beauty of this continent.

What would you tell people who are contemplating visiting Africa?

I would tell people that they owe it to themselves to come here. You cannot get a sense for Africa by paying attention to the limited coverage the continent receives in the news. You have to visit yourself. Before visiting, my conception of Africa was incredibly one-dimensional. I visited Ghana for the music, but I frankly thought I wasn’t going to enjoy much beyond that. I’m glad the music did bring me here, because I discovered so much more once I arrived.

Photos: Phil Paoletta.

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  • Phil February 19, 2013 at 21:25

    Thanks again for the interview! Great questions!