Viva Afrika – a restaurant in Rotterdam my research colleagues and I found when looking for places where we could do our observations for a project called ,,Writing Ethnography” in the Master African Studies. When I first heard of the assignment and what I was supposed to do I felt a bit overwhelmed but I was looking forward to the challenge. I felt that way because I have spent my last year by only doing research in natural science, a field where oneself had to be kept out of papers that one is writing and subjectivity as well as self reflexion aren’t widely discussed. A field where ,,objectiveness”, numbers and statistics play an essential role. I believe that a human’s mental work can’t be purely ,,objective” but rather our past experiences have an influence on our present individual views and perspectives.
What caught my attention was the choice of the name. Obviously ,,Viva” stems from a romanic, indogermanic language and ,,Afrika” is the second biggest continent in the world. Until now I have known of restaurants in Europe that used words from Swahili or Amharic or chose to name themselves after cities – which implies they focus on a specific region. So who and what stands behind that name, Viva Afrika? I was curious and I enjoyed the vigorous and colorful connotation that came to my mind. Apparently even before I go to the restaurant, I have already had many thoughts and might look a bit closer at the cuisine(s), the dishes, the interior, the staff or the guests when I am physically on-site. After several visits to restaurants in East, Southern and North Africa, I am curious what dishes will be served in Viva Afrika in Europe. Also as an academic and in private life I have had many situations where I realized that it is a difficult endeavour to speak about Africa as a whole without focusing on a specific topic or region. Where do you start, what do you focus on, what selection do you make?
My colleagues and I walked towards the restaurant which has exterior walls made of glass and big, colorful letters forming the restaurant’s name. An elongated board was placed beside the entrance and I found out that the restaurant specialized in traditional East and West African dishes. Enormously friendly staff welcomed us and I saw that there haven’t been many guests on this Monday evening, though I wished them high revenues, in these tough times.
Since there weren’t a lot of guests, the restaurant’s décor and style were brought to the fore. I thought that even after two or three hours on-site I wouldn’t have been finished with spotting every piece that was placed in the dining hall. The interior was filled with lots of colorful paintings and photographs, statues and lamps, mats and baskets, plants and animals, painted pillars and furniture.
It wasn’t only the side walls and furniture which were decorated but also the ceiling. Right above me I found a mat or blanket with a lightchain winding on its sides. On top one could find fabrics that in my eyes represented a canopy bed or beachchair and I had to think of my time in Zanzibar, the white sand and turquoise water. I took a sip of my mango beer, out of a wooden bowl. The variety of fruits and vegetables on the menu reminded me of the bustling markets in Arusha and Eastern Madagascar. The colourful baskets reminded me of my visit to Lalibela and the delicious vegan food. The Maasai blanket behind me reminded me of southern Kenya, where I attended the wedding of one of my best friends. The photos and paintings of lions and cheetahs reminded me of my time in the Kalahari where I worked with wildlife and traveled around as a photographer.
This restaurant really has a predilection for décor and addresses all one’s senses. I wondered why this or that object was placed, how the different artworks and dishes were selected. Having experiences in East Africa, but not West Africa, my focus had already been directed and I was consequently searching for elements related to East Africa. I struggled a bit in getting a picture of this (Viva) Afrika in my mind because there were so many different objects, songs, tastes combined. However, I realized that my initial thoughts on ,,whole” Africa – where one should start, one should focus on, what selection to make – are present again. It is simply not possible to represent, write or think about a whole continent in a small setting, with just a few words but only to give a small insight.
Apparently visiting the restaurant confronted me with an accumulation of different objects, sounds, dishes and tastes. Without my individual background I would have experienced and described the whole setting with a different perspective and would have had different expectations. My experiences have shaped my look at my environment and I have gained an individual view of the atmosphere and surroundings. And to come back to what I wrote in the initial paragraph: how could I have been able to describe the restaurant by using so-called objective numbers and statistics? I had to overcome my mindset, comprised with the numbers, and grow into my role as an African Studies student again. Apparently, I as a person was an integral part of the research setting and played a role in the observation. In my role as a natural science student this experiment wouldn’t have led me to comparable observations but rather narratives as well as self-reflexion were an essential part of this blog writing process.