Meet Drew Binsky, an energetic 26-year-old from Arizona, USA. Armed with his DSLR camera, he lives out his wildest wanderlust dreams, thanks to, as he put it, “financial discipline” and “the power of the perfect pitch to sponsors”. With a following of more than 800 000 people on Facebook alone, Binsky has established himself as a bit of a tastemaker, particularly for millennials like himself who have an appetite for travel.
This is how he describes himself: “I’ve visited 135+ countries since 2012, and I’m on a mission to visit every country on earth before turning 30 (in 2021). My overall goal is to spread peace, positivity and happiness…” A noble goal indeed; one that everyone can get behind. However, Binsky is also an obnoxious, stereotypical Westerner who underestimates the intelligence of others and their ability to decipher nuance. He talks about doing research and reading up about the places he visits, yet he cannot restrain himself from watering down people’s identities and histories, particularly in the global South, as informed by his limited and skewed Western gaze.
Colonial-era reporting in the modern day
Binsky first caught my attention when he made a video about his one-day trip to/through Lesotho. In this video, audaciously titled Have you ever heard of LESOTHO before? Newsflash: It’s a country!!!, the manner in which he reports on the facts to know about Lesotho was no different from so many derogatory media reports that I have encountered before. This kind of reportage completely neglects to reflect the realities of being a Mosotho who lives and works in Lesotho. I have spent time studying in the US on a Fulbright Fellowship and I am all too familiar with how difficult a task it is to find non-superficial content about my country on the Internet, so I was not completely surprised.
Nevertheless, his Columbus-style language of discovery and ethnographic profiling immediately roused my attention. I consciously psyched myself up to keep an open mind. One is obligated to adopt the attitude of having enough salt on hand from which to take a pinch when dealing with ignorant (in the literal sense of the word) Westerners. But really, his video was reminiscent of film footage shot in Lesotho by our former colonisers from as long ago as the 1930s.
Binsky is an obnoxious, stereotypical Westerner who underestimates the intelligence of others and their ability to decipher nuance.
In a subsequent video of his time in Lesotho, he closes by saying, “Be happy and thankful for the life you live because you could have been born here.” Clearly this message is intended for his counterparts in America and other Western countries because people like myself – a travel enthusiast millennial too, I might add – were born here. It is a little sad, in fact, because in effect he diminishes his entire race and demographic to people who think exactly the way he does. Instead of separating himself from the typical crop of Caucasian explorers, he minimises the experiences of those American and European visitors who have deeper, more fulfilling and spiritually uplifting moments not only in Lesotho but throughout the continent.
The “us and them” dichotomy
Binsky shares another video, my personal favourite, called “Africa – top 12 travel tips” complete with images of dirty children, stereotypical anecdotes about safety, poverty and illness and comparisons to his more nurtured life in the West. His opening lines come close to functioning as a disclaimer in the tone of, “Hey, Africa is not all that bad stuff you think of it; it’s actually kind of amazing”, but then he goes on to contradict that sentiment almost immediately.
In his cringeworthy sermon, he brags about not taking malaria prevention medication (which is extremely unwise) and then warns that it is in a traveller’s best interest to avoid consulting a local doctor (never mind that the healthcare profession in America is littered with medical practitioners trained in Africa). He warns people not to be paranoid about safety but continues to caution them to travel only during the day. In keeping with his overarching stereotyping, he makes blanket statements such as “Africa is hot and humid”. This is a complete generalisation – Lesotho, for one, is hot and dry in summer and very cold and snowy in winter.
Binsky speaks about how expensive it is to travel in Africa and insists that the best way to travel is flying. He ignores the fact that travel by road is significantly cheaper and eminently doable, that we have Airbnb here too, as well as homestays to accommodate visitors. He advises visitors to carry a wad of dollars and says nothing about withdrawing local currency at local ATMs or banks – a money-saving technique for any strategic or budget-conscious thinker, given the rate of exchange. He explicitly says that Africa is dirty, after highlighting that he spent most of his time in forests and city outskirts. Does one not usually encounter dirt where there are no pavements? One would think that he would know that, being from Arizona.
What did he leave out?
Binsky did nothing to confront stereotypes and harmful preconceptions about Africa; if anything he quite excellently perpetuates them. The questions he asks locals in his clips, along with the commentary he makes throughout, expose a person who views politeness as the bare minimum. As one of those people who assumes that politeness is a distinguishing quality of the civilised, it is easy to spot his sarcasm through what he does not say. Framing himself as respectful and appreciative of his privilege and other people’s cultures, he sees nothing wrong with saying things like “Dress down to avoid drawing attention to yourself”; “Mentally prepare yourself for a wild, challenging adventure”; “TIA” – a reference for how slow things operate in Africa; and, of course, the cliché that the true beauty of Africa lies in the bush.
Clearly African minds are not the only ones desperate for decolonisation because Binsky’s breed runs rampant in the West.
Maybe they do things differently where he is from, but here in Africa any mildly discerning person can tell that his coverage is rude, damaging, biased, ignorant and supremacist. A large number of Africans actually travel to America and Europe but hardly ever do you see us making the type of anthropological and lacking-in-nuance videos that Binsky does. One could easily say that perhaps we should start doing that, but only light can drive out darkness. Clearly African minds are not the only ones desperate for decolonisation because Binsky’s breed runs rampant in the West. For him, travelling through 15 countries in two months makes him an expert who is qualified in all things concerning the environment and the way people live. I can say a great deal more about this, but it is just too exhausting to still be dealing with this mentality in 2018.