There are some places on earth that speak directly to your soul. Places that kick up flames from the darker corners of your mind, that whisper to you of myth and magic, that make you feel small and insignificant in the best possible way. This is Africa. A continent and a culture that many of us know little about beyond the images of Masai warriors in National Geographic magazine, or perhaps the exotic travel tales of legendary author Paul Theroux, Peter Beard’s iconic 1970s photographs, or sweeping scenes from Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa.
But the African continent, comprising 54 countries and one territory over an area bigger than China, India, America and half of Europe combined, is where the roots of humankind lie. This was first confirmed in 1924 when the oldest existing fossil of a three-year-old human child’s skull was discovered in South Africa, and just last year human remains predating all others were uncovered in the African nation of Ethiopia, dating back 2.8 million years.
Today Africa is home to 1.1 billion people, 16 percent of the world’s population. Yet it’s also the world’s poorest and most underdeveloped continent, accounting for just 2.4 percent of the global GDP. Over 240 million Africans suffer from chronic undernourishment, while water scarcity impacts the lives of over 300 million – this being the world’s hottest continent where deserts and dry lands cover 60 percent of the surface area. Populated by an estimated 3,000 tribes, Africa has also faced serious issues of tribal warfare, including the heartbreaking 1994 Rwandan genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi tribe members by the members of the Hutu majority, which culled up to 20 percent of Rwanda’s entire population.
Last year, one piece of bad news after another rolled out of Africa. The Ebola epidemic, although contained to West Africa, resulted in over 11,000 deaths and had a devastating impact on foreign travel to the entire continent. That paired with the news of terrorism attacks by Sunni Muslim extremists, and even the death of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American game-hunter which drew international media attention and sparked outrage among animal conservationists, politicians and celebrities, had travellers deciding to head elsewhere in the world. Luckily, the situations have now calmed down, and Africa’s diverse drawcards remain as irresistible as ever.
In the north you’ll find Egypt with its monolithic ancient pyramids, and the head-swimmingly rich and colourful cultural tapestry of Morocco. Over on the south-eastern coast sit the idyllic tropical archipelagos of Zanzibar and Mozambique, where lazily waving palms, perfect arcs of white sand, crystalline waters and Arabian Nights scenes coloured with dhows, spices and treasures await.
A little further inland are the safari capitals of Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Botswana, where leopards, zebras, lions, giraffes and elephants roam wild and free under huge skies instead of behind bars at a zoo. You’ll find ancient monolithic hand-carved churches in Ethiopia, the home of coffee, the Queen of Sheba and the oldest known human ancestor on the planet, and some of the world’s best vineyards, beaches and chic boutique hotels in South Africa’s Cape Town. And in Zimbabwe you can “fly with the angels”, taking a helicopter flight over the famous Victoria Falls, the world’s largest sheet of falling water.
Scattered throughout all of these nations are one of the most fascinating elements of African culture, its ancient tribes. These tribes continue to be a dominant force across the continent, and their aesthetics have inspired global creative industries for decades. One of the most sizeable is the Masai tribe of East Africa, one of the last great warrior cultures on earth who live semi-nomadically with their herds of cattle, which they rely on for the meat, milk and blood that sustains them, and who dress in red patterned cloths called shukas and kaleidoscopically-coloured beaded jewellery. Also recognized globally are the Himba tribe, in particular the female members. These tall, slender and statuesque semi-nomadic herders apply otjize, a paste of butterfat and red ochre, to their skin and hair each morning, giving them a distinctive red hue that has captured the attention of photographers from around the world. The female members of the nomadic Mursi clan from Africa’s Great Rift Valley are also known worldwide for their aesthetic, wearing clay plates in their lower lips, as well as using body scarification and painting to enhance their attractiveness, and to indicate individuality and status.
When it comes to the fashion world, designers have repeatedly tapped Africa’s tribal aesthetics, as well as its heritage and wildlife, for inspiration. This influence is argued to have started with Yves Saint Laurent’s renowned 1967 “African” collection, which included African-style beading, layered shag, earthy tones and tribal prints. Galliano’s SS97 haute couture collection for Dior was heavily influenced by the Masai tribes’ red shukas and beaded jewelry, and Alexander McQueen’s AW00 Eshu collection was named after a god of the West African Yoruba people, where models appeared with painted faces, exotic feathered headdresses and silver mouth- and nose-pieces.
More recently, Dolce & Gabbana’s SS13 collection featured caricature-like depictions of African women as prints on dresses and as earrings that many found offensive, especially since the pieces were shown without using a single black African model. During the SS16 season, Japan’s own Junya Watanabe fused tribal influences with old-fashioned colonialism, featuring safari shirts and waistcoats and panama hats accompanied by tribal beaded jewelry, while Missoni and Valentino named Africa as a reference in collections that included animal-style prints and colours, bone necklaces and African printed fabrics.
So whether taking a journey to Africa in real time, or travelling there figuratively via the latest haute couture offerings, Paul Theroux’s words will surely ring true: “Africa is one of the last great places on earth a person can vanish into.”