Bourdain’s Liberia

Anthony Bourdain — a traveling chef author celebrity — travelled to Liberia and the show aired this week. There was a lot of excitement among the folks I know who used to live there. A preview of the show was posted to his blog a while back, and some of the exact phrases were used in the broadcast.

But no place has so utterly confounded me, intimidated, horrified, amazed, sickened, depressed, inspired, exhausted and shown me–with every passing hour–how wrong I was about everything I might have thought only an hour previous.

He doesn’t explain what so utterly confounded him within an hour of landing, nor what he expected. Oh, well. We know what happened in Liberia, and he sums it up, then goes to the market to suck snails out of shells and so forth. He has fufu and soup with a friend he met at a scrabble club. Those scenes were fun to watch. He travels up to Nimba County, and they show fleeting footage of a pool I once swam in. He goes deep into the jungle for a ritual with a tribe he doesn’t name (or names so passingly I didn’t catch it). He doesn’t bother to show any marks of civilization, although I’m guessing he stayed in the comparatively luxurious Mamba Point hotel while in Monrovia, which even has a sushi restaurant. That’s very close to where Linus lives in Mamba Point, though it didn’t exist in in 1982. You would never guess from watching the show that anybody eats anything other than wildly unrecognizable things. But exotic cuisine is what the show is about, and I expected it. But he goes a little bit further.

He says on the blog:

There’s a church on nearly every corner–but underneath it all, traditional “masked societies” still rule the hearts and minds and behaviors of many…

A theme he expounds upon in the show, saying something about ritualistic cannibalism, suggesting that “Some people try to minimize it, but ask anybody who’s lived here for over fifteen years!” Bourdain was there for what, ten days? And now he’s an expert on Liberia’s cannibalistic practices? Admittedly confounded upon arrival, expecting something completely different from the war-ravaged, recovering, West African nation that he found (again, he didn’t explain this part very well), by the time he’s been led around by some generous guides for a few days, eaten fufu with his hands, and visited a couple of sites, he is prepared to speak to what really happens in those remote villages when the cameras are away.

But he’s wearing kid gloves in the broadcast. In a Slate article he goes a bit further to show how disgusted he was by Liberia.

[A]lthough I find certain tribal practices personally deeply repellant, I’d always felt uncomfortable with the idea of these “enlightened humanitarians” going to Africa and lecturing people who don’t have clean water and have been living with these systems for centuries about how to behave. And yet I gotta tell you, Liberia made me ask myself: Are some things just wrong? Genital mutilation would be one. Some of the practices of some of the traditional tribal elders—witch doctors, basically—are another. I really wonder whether there are absolutes in some cases.

Where does the genital mutilation come from? Was Bourdain invited to witness one after the fufu in Monrovia or the tribal dance in northern Nimba County? He doesn’t explain. Though perfectly willing to slight people who go to Africa for longer than a week or two, including those who want to truly make a difference instead of just sampling the food and shooting some exotic footage. I know this is the Africa that Americans want to see. Blood diamonds, genital mutilations, armies of giant ants that eat villages…. you know. Africa.

But to be honest, Bourdain’s dramatic introduction and glancing commentary are going down about as well as that snail that gave him food poisoning. I enjoyed the show overall but could have done without the sensationalism and self-righteousness.

2 thoughts on “Bourdain’s Liberia

  1. Of course you’re right on many points, but it’s Bourdain’s particular mix of sensationalism and self-righteousness that got him a tv show and keeps it on the air. Click on any reality show; it works.

    Last spring I sat on an international committee to award scholarships to young women in developing countries who wanted to study for a Masters or PhD in the US and several of those women were from African countries, including Liberia. A number of them had suffered genital mutilation and other abuses because it was the tradition of their people. They had amazing stories to tell of hardship and accomplishment and escape, as well as the desire to return and work with other women and children to improve their lives. I’m not so sure that I agree that Bourdain’s version is simply the “Africa that Americans want to see.” I think most folks would like to see these horrible practices stopped for good and that won’t happen unless lots of people know about it, talk about it, and be disgusted enough by it that they’ll try to make a difference.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Katie. I definitely don’t support female circumcision. It just came out of nowhere given the nature of the show and the time Bourdain spent there.

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