Commentary

A Mzungu's Guide To Social Africa

Jambo! Karibu! All around Tanzania, people would greet us mzungus (white people) shouting, "Hello!" and, "Welcome!" and it felt like the most social and hospitable place on earth. I was convinced, midway through my February travels through Africa, that I'd come home and start waving to young children on the subway after getting into that habit while abroad. So far, I've held back.

Unlike my December trip to South America, I was fine staying somewhat connected digitally while in South Africa, Tanzania's mainland, Zanzibar, and Amsterdam during 17 days away. While visiting places that felt so foreign (I'll take getting woken up by monkeys instead of garbage trucks any day), it was fun to have a few comforts of home with me. That included dabbling in social media, often with unexpected results.

Facebook kept me the most connected with my friends and family. A series of 11 photos in my Mobile Uploads album charts the progress of the trip: souvenirs in Amsterdam's airport, cheetahs and schoolchildren near South Africa's Kruger game reserve, penguins in Cape Town (including a Cat Paint version), a Serengeti hot air balloon ride, the beaches of Zanzibar, and finally a strange reaction to oversized teacups back in the Netherlands. Since I've returned, I've been in the process of sharing hundreds of others, but the first batch does provide an apt summary, and it tells a natural story precisely because it wasn't clear day to day what would unfold.

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A major part of the value of using Facebook while in transit came from friends' recommendations. When I mentioned I was in South Africa, my friend Tom Lynch offered winery recommendations for Cape Town. I hadn't realized that he started a South African wine importing business Worthwhile Wine, and his recommendations proved fruitful (pardon the pun). Later, as I sought to make the most of my stopover in Amsterdam, more than a dozen people chimed in with great ideas.

I basically avoided Twitter. It's more for work than for personal use for me, and I didn't want to work while away. I ran a few cross-posts from other social services, one job-related retweet plugging a client's campaign, and a couple "twout of twoffice" updates that I pre-scheduled via HootSuite to warn about my slow response times.

On Foursquare, thanks to the reliable Internet access at Djuma Vuyatela Lodge in South Africa and then the Zanzibar Serena Inn, I was able to become mayor of each property. Travel mayorships are fun but ephemeral, as there will inevitably be a tech savvy visitor staying for longer who will swoop in and steal it. My own contributions of tips may be more lasting.

I used Gowalla initially to get some country pins, and the South African flag is so stylish that I'm proud to sport it on my profile. It's also one app of too few today that seamlessly shares with Tumblr, so you'll see a bunch of check-ins on my makeshift Tumblr feed.

The biggest surprises during the trip came from FoodSpotting. When I was at the South African lodge Djuma Vuyatela, the food was among the best I've had anywhere. I had to share a couple selections on FoodSpotting. When you use the app in New York or San Francisco, you'll often find dozens of dishes within a couple tenths of a mile. Where I was, the closest dish spotted was 35 miles away, and the next closest was 63 miles away. That's why I was floored when, a day after posting a photo of crepes with strawberries and mascarpone cheese at Djuma, I received a comment on the photo from lodge owner Jurie Moolman thanking me for the compliment. My photos of the crepes and lamb chops are currently the only ones appearing for that property, so perhaps you'll see more there soon.

At Dornier Wines' Bodega restaurant in Cape Town's wine region, I had an extraordinary meal of flammkuchen, which is essentially a German twist on pizza also known as tarte flambée. After sharing a photo of that dish and the kudu steak entrée on FoodSpotting, the winery's owner friended me on Facebook.

One other app isn't necessarily social, but it was the best conversation-starter. I have the Star Walk app on my iPhone, but I had never used it, as you don't see too many stars in New York unless you've got front row seats during Fashion Week. When I checked out the app at Djuma, where WiFi worked even in outdoor common areas, everyone became a stargazer.

As for social media, the most use I'll get out of it is now, as I bombard Facebook, Flickr, and TripAdvisor with updates so that other mzungus (and anyone else) can see Africa for themselves, and learn where to get the best flammkuchen.

2 comments about "A Mzungu's Guide To Social Africa ".
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  1. Khalid Low from Gotham Direct, Inc, March 8, 2011 at 3:38 p.m.

    Imagine my shocking yet very pleasant surprise when I read this article since I speak Swahili. Of course the essence of the article is about Social Media which I couldn't agree with you more.
    Two of my friends are taking a 4 months hiatus to visit Africa volunteering at various places in four countries and are updating all their friends via Facebook and a blog that was created for just that trip (http://thewingedword.blogspot.com/).

    It is so detailed that we can see Africa through their eyes and it's inspiring a lot of people to think about making that trip to the continent of the cradle of civilization. Social media is changing our world without a doubt.

  2. Zahra Ladak from WebMD, March 8, 2011 at 4:07 p.m.

    I second that surprised feeling, Khalid. Reading "mzungu" in the title definitely got a laugh.

    And yes, social media has given us the ability to share what we see in such a way where people feel like they are right there with you.

    Go TZ!

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