It’s two o’clock on Tuesday morning at the Allapalooza, a Western-themed bar with a mixed clientele, most of which whirls on the dance floor. Saddles, cow skulls, flatscreen TVs and sepia photos adorn the walls. The light is low, suggestively red; the mood, a pure euphoria. Tall, blonde Ukrainian bartenders, women all, pour vodka shots while tall, dark Lebanese men clasp shoulders, dancing dabke. Soon their circle has lassoed every partyer (white, black, brown) in the club, and a fair-haired bartender, belly ring bared, breaks out the massive hookahs. I’m trying to master the footwork when a Middle Eastern woman grabs my hand and leads me out—“you’re messing up the circle,” she says, laughing—to teach me. It’s early July, a relief, if rather embarrassing, to be shunted outside. The woman claps, her hands tinted pink by the bar’s neon sign, “On y va!” So it is that I learn Lebanese dance at an American-themed nightclub staffed with Ukrainians. I think, I could be anywhere in the world right now.
Then marvel: I’m in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. It’s the second of three stops, along with Ghana and Togo, on a four-week tour, the fruit of another 2 a.m. epiphany, this one in Rome. It was early May in the Eternal City (my adopted home), a balmy night; I was celebrating having finished my novel with friends at Bar del Fico. “Do you know what you want for the cover?” someone asked. I rattled off my list of no’s: no sunsets, no lions, no cowry shells, no baobab trees in silhouette. My friends joined in: no graphic prints, no elder boatmen fording rivers, no joyful children, no tearful children, no grasslands, no giraffes. As entertaining as the exercise was, I walked back home with a heavy heart. At two o’clock in the morning I was still awake, now strumming my pain with Google.
Raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, the daughter of Nigerian and Ghanaian parents, I’d long since had a bone to pick with stereotypes of Africa. My childhood friends were perennially curious: Are there roads in Africa? Do you wear clothes in Africa? By high school the content of the questions had evolved, but the incredulous tone remained. West Africa was farther than “foreign”: It was far, far away, inspiring curiosity or pity or both, but never considered engagement.
In 2005, when I was finishing a master’s in philosophy at Oxford, a classmate asked me to write an essay for the Africa issue of a small magazine. I biked home to my attic flat and banged one out that night. I was neither blind nor indifferent to the realities of African political dysfunction. My parents had left for good reasons; civil warfare, hunger, poverty were real. As the novelist Chimamanda Adichie so brilliantly put it, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” What I wanted was somehow to complete the picture, to expand the redundant tale of woe to include the lived realities of Africans I knew. That reality—modern, cosmopolitan, familial; if dysfunctional, then universally so—informed the essay “Bye-Bye, Babar: Or What Is an Afropolitan?” In it I argue that a contemporary generation of Africans has redefined its relationship to and its expectations of the continent. These Afropolitans share three traits: a hybrid cultural identity, a global consciousness, a commitment to effecting change. Published in England in 2005, the essay made its way abroad, and by 2010 the word “Afropolitan” was in use worldwide.
In the U.S. the identity was applied to a distinguished group of thinkers, including architect David Adjaye, artist Wangechi Mutu and author Teju Cole. For me, to see such sharp creatives embracing the term was thrilling—but it offered pause. All of them (us) lived outside Africa. I’d never intended the essay to apply to expats only, but the question arose: Did any Afropolitans actually live on the African continent? My answer was such an unequivocal yes that I barely paid the question mind and so didn’t put my finger on its pulse until last May.
At 2 a.m. that night in Rome, it occurred to me what troubled me about the speculation that Afropolitanism somehow excluded Africa. Still musing on my book cover, I ran an image search for “African boy.” At the top of the “related searches” page were the words “poor boy,” “starving,” “sad.” Of course, I thought. It wasn’t that the questioners misunderstood Afropolitanism. The problem was the imagery that defined their sense of Africa. For sleepless hours I Googled these images, considering the collective story they told: of a continent full of safari animals and devoid of young adults. Between the wizened elder, woeful child and weapon-bearing rebel lay a gaping hole in the representation—a hole I vowed to close. An essay was good, but not enough. I’d done my best with my thousand words. Now I needed a picture: a portrait of Africa’s twentysomethings. And not the overprivileged ones, the children of African robber barons who often didn’t meet Afropolitan criteria number three. Not soldiers, nor the rural poor, and not because they didn’t exist but simply because we’d seen enough—I’d seen enough—already. I longed to see urban young adults who lived like young adults anywhere: working, partying, exulting, despairing, making their way in their world.
The idea was born at dawn in Piazza di Spagna: I’d make a documentary about the daily lives of African millennials. I called (and woke) Bliss Holloway, the New York-based cinematographer who’d shot a short film for me years before. The conversation was brief. “What would you say to a road trip in West Africa this summer?” I asked.
Bliss laughed sleepily. “I’d say, ’When do we start?’"
We start in Accra, Ghana, at the end of June 2012, unintentionally perfect timing: The first international Salsa Congress has just gotten under way. If ever there were a snapshot of the Afropolitan spirit, it’d be this: West African and Latin American salseros side by side in sequins. Melissa Mensah, the organizer, a glamorous Ghanaian-American-Nicaraguan lawyer, explains that salsa classes are the city’s newest craze. With no more than a DJ scratch, the music goes from salsa to azonto (Ghanaian clubbing music), and the line dancing begins. Limping home an hour later, I’m joyous, dripping sweat, resolved: Accra will one day soon be one of my more permanent homes.
Next stop is Burkina Faso, 11 hours due north. It’s a straight shot to the border, then two hours more to Ouagadougou: a desert city, dusty, flat and indescribably awesome. Our host, Adama Dicko, 27, is a self-described “Rasta-Muslim” musician, married to a Viennese woman. “Ouaga is one of the coolest cities on earth. I would never leave it completely,” he says. Two days later, we know what he means. We’ve driven to Loango Sculpture Park, an hour outside the city, where huge faces carved from granite rise like Cubist masks from dust. We’ve eaten at L’Eau Vive, run by multicultural nuns (the sister location of which is minutes from my flat in Rome). We’ve seen 60-year-old Burkinabé women zipping around on motorini. We’ve popped into the Goethe Institut, where Adama studies German. And we’ve been partied under the table: I’ve never danced as hard as we dance in Ouaga, burning it down at the Allapalooza until the sun comes up. Then, to catch our establishing shot of the sun rising over the city, we sneak into an unfinished building and climb up to the roof. You can see the whole of Ouaga from here, a flat reddish landscape of modest brown buildings. "How’s anywhere else going to beat this place?” I ask.
I’ve been coming to Ghana to visit my mother every Christmas for 11 years; how I never drove westward to the beachfront gem escapes me. Our host, Lovejoyce Amani, 29, could be the mayor; a charming Togolese media personality, he knows everyone in Lomé. He takes us to his favorite restaurant, Nopegali, for gbékui, a heavenly spinach stew, then to the open-air marketplace to shop for vintage kente. But the city comes alive at night, when hundreds of hipsters flock to the beach—skinny jeans, plaid shirts, Chuck Taylors and all—for the weekly Thursday Night Drag Race (which has unfortunately been discontinued). It’s a scene from a 1960s film: scooters racing down the palm-lined road, their daredevil drivers popping wheelies. Someone spins a Mercedes in circles. Lovejoyce sells from the trunk of his car. At a certain point Bliss and I look at each other and laugh with awe: “Where are we?”
Driving west to Cotonou, we’re doubtful that Benin can beat the drag race or the dancing—that is, until we see the lagoon. Lovejoyce and his lively friends have sent us off in Lomé style: with an all-night karaokefest at Discothèque Privilège. More than a little worse for wear, we’re happy to start slowly in Cotonou with an easy lunch of grilled shrimp on the beach with host Edwina. “Didi,” as she’s known to friends, used to live in Paris but returned to Benin “because the weather’s better, the people are warmer, and it’s home.” After lunch, she leads us to a dock at the edge of a lagoon—in the middle of which sits a little island full of Didi’s friends. We eat dinner overlooking the Weme River at Didi’s best friend’s bar, The Saloon. (Apparently, the Wild West is popular in Francophone Africa.) A live band from Porto-Novo plays Fela Kuti covers, the whole bar singing along as the sun sets on the water.
This is the young West Africa that Western media rarely shows. No one here is super wealthy. Everyone lives in Benin by choice. As in Lomé and Ouagadougou, our hosts are passionate about their homeland—but easily, even pleasurably so; they laugh at the West’s misconceptions. To wit, a Beninois man, maybe 30, sees our cameras and asks what we’re up to. I tell him we’re doing research for a documentary. He groans. “More pictures of skinny, starving people?”
“You’re thinking of Fashion Week.”
He laughs. “Touché.”
“A different picture,” I venture.
Taiye Selasi is the 33-year-old author of Ghana Must Go, published by Penguin Press in 2013.