Finding an ‘African site’ in Leiden would prove to be tricky. An African space, of Africans, by Africans and for Africans can only truly exist on the African continent itself; not even the most metropolitan and diasporic cities in Europe and the United States of America could provide a true African space. Thus this was the first reality that I would have to face – that any space I observe wouldn’t wholly be reflective of Africa, but rather an African diaspora in a European superstructure. The digital world does make the provision and access to African spaces somewhat easier – I can be in the Dutch Randstad and if I so wanted to access a purely African space online, but my own latent technophobia came to the fore as I refused to even explore this option. Perhaps it is limiting, but for a true ethnography being physically ‘amongst it’ as it were, being truly in the thick of it is more enriching, more revealing and more truthful – in a digital space it is difficult to pick up on the subtleties of human interaction, sometimes even nigh on impossible. The exceptions are of course if your research involves the digital world and digital spaces.
With my own technophobia growing as I sought self-justification for shirking the digital space I began to look for a physical ‘African space’. Coming from a Political background at undergraduate level, and just a general love of all things for politics – I sought for a political space that was African. Being so close to Den Haag I presumed this would be easy. Protests are the easiest political spaces to access; having attended a few in the past I was confident in my own ability to be an observer of a protest, as well as a participant. At protests people are willing to talk, to educate, to share their burning fury at their perceived injustice – no better place for me to combine ethnography with my reflexive craving of politics. Here too, I encountered problems; namely that I had no contacts that could inform me of any political protests by an African diaspora taking place this weekend, (scouring social media for any protests outside any of the many African embassies in Den Haag threw up no results) and that protests are sparse given the reality of a global pandemic – the physical constraints of doing research on short-notice, as well as the constraints imposed by events out of the control of myself, a mere individual, became apparent. Indeed, these restraints would cause me to reflect on the reality that the research that I want to do is sometimes impossible – and that going forward the researcher has to compromise, the perfect ideal, the perfect thesis question or topic can’t coexist with constrains, and any unexpected constraints that might flare up further down the line.
With a political African space looking less likely, I had to go out of my comfort zone – a dive into cultural ethnography. Ethnography was already a stretch, at least a politicised ethnography was in my realm, but with politics out of the question, an attempt at cultural ethnography is what I had to do. With this in mind, I headed to an East African restaurant in the heart of Leiden. East Africa is a region of Africa that I have had few encounters with; I knew little of the region politically, culturally, gastronomically – a visit to this Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant would at least break down this gastronomical barrier of ignorance.
The restaurant does its best to immerse you in Eritrea and Ethiopia – the walls are adorned with photographs and paintings from the two countries, there is a small bookshelf stacked with literature in a range of languages about the region, the music they play is African, though I notice that quite a lot of it is Congolese – a slice of ‘African’ culture that I am familiar with – Congolese music has clearly proliferated across the continent. I am almost certain I heard Papa Wemba sprinkled throughout the playlist. Nevertheless, the host of the restaurant enthusiastically talks you through the menu, giving his own recommendations, and stresses that in this restaurant everything they try to do (and enforce) is in homage to making it an authentic Eritrean experience. The food, the beer, the way the food is consumed and the way the beer is served – the beer he recommends is a Mango Beer, served in what he calls a ‘calabash’, traditionally Eritrean he assures me. The food can’t be eaten with cutlery, he offers a spoon but insists that I use the injera provided to scoop up the lamb, chicken, potatoes, spinach and lentils to eat – which I gladly do.
Here I compare the Eritrean gastronomy to the other African gastronomy I am familiar with – that of the Congo. I did not know what to expect from Eritrean gastronomy, but I certainly assumed that some staples of Congolese food would be offered – plantain, fufu, cassava-leaves based food – as they are fairly common in West Africa too, or so my Ghanian and Nigerian friends have assured me. Here it’s important to reflect not only on my own ignorance, expecting that two countries as wildly different as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Eritrea would have similar diets and gastronomy, but also to reflect on how when faced with little knowledge I reached for a comparison to something ‘nearby’ that I could apply – the reflexive search for familiarity is intrinsically human.
Furthermore, I observed the decor and paintings of the restaurant – whilst most of it seemed genuinely East African, I find myself questioning the wooden Giraffe and Lion that sit in the restaurant window. Was this an accurate reflection of the wildlife in this region of Africa, or was it an extension of the popular perception of Africa as a whole being used to entice customers into the restaurant? Here I am reminded of Edward Said’s seminal ‘Orientalism’, and how that can be extended to not only our perceptions of the Near-East and the Far-East but also to the African continent – our perceptions of African wildlife is a continuous version of The Lion King that stretches from coast-to-coast with a large desert briefly interrupting it; perhaps the restaurant owners have internalised this perception and to draw customers in have adorned the restaurant with things the average punter in Europe associates with Africa. I observed my own ‘orentialised’ thinking at the restaurant too – a painting of three camel riders caught my eye, but it was only after squinting that I realised that they weren’t camels at all, rather oxes; a combination of internalised orentialism and a decaying eye-sight.
After finishing up my mango flavoured beer and paying for my meal, I was very much satisfied. The host says, “see you next time” a tacit invite back that I’m gladly going to accept, I reflect on the attempt to find an African space in Leiden. Was this of Africans, by Africans and for Africans? Certainly it was of Africans by Africans, but whether it was for was somewhat of a moot point; at least my gastronomical ignorance of Eritrea and Ethiopia had been dispelled.