(Published on November 17, 2005 in the student newspaper)
I remember walking into the environmental science class as a freshman and seeing the gold African-Map pendant resting chicly on the Professor’s neck. I was impressed and astonished by her extensive knowledge and travel in several African countries. That fall, she led an academic trip to Botswana.
I also remember sitting in my intercultural communications class the same semester with the professor wanting feedback on the different places we went. “How about the Geneva trip?” “How was Sicily?” Then she asked, “So, how was Africa?” A boy replied, “I loved it…but it was weird to have Africans speaking English though”.
I was surprised at his reply and disturbed at the professor’s resolve to individualize cities in Europe but group countries in a whole continent as one. In fact, it is amusing when I recall questions from that class such as, “Somalia? Isn’t that the pretty island?”, “Isn’t there a war going on in Nigeria right now?” “You chat online with your sister in Nigeria? You have electricity and internet?” I could excuse the first two questions because you may need political awareness to answer both but the third cannot be excused. No, there is no electricity or internet in Nigeria; we use moonlight-powered computers.
It was a full year of people walking up to me and attempting to speak Ebonics, not realizing that even with our afro-connectivity, contemporary cultural differences still exist between black Africans, black Americans and black Caribbean people of the African Diaspora.
I had assumed things would change by my sophomore year; after all, I cannot limit my impression to one class discussion or my freshman year right? I was wrong.
Three years later, I remain astounded.
In the fall semester during my junior year, there was a trip to Malawi and Zambia. A poster posted by students around campus read “donate to the African children”. Again I was surprised. Donations were made but I do not remember any funds being donated toward my tuition. Am I not African?
Similarly, a trip to Morocco was offered in the same semester as a trip to Tanzania. Both are in Africa but Morocco was given a separate uniqueness than Tanzania. I cannot recall the number of times I have been told this semester that “Morocco was great!” and “I love Africa!” or “We went swimming in Africa.” I suppose it was one gigantic swimming pool spread across Burundi, Kenya, Nigeria, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Angola, Togo, Cameroon, Chad, Zambia, Swaziland, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Botswana, South Africa, Niger, Seychelles, Lesotho, Ghana, Liberia, Ethiopia, Cape Verde, Comoros, Senegal, Tunisia, Cote d’voire, Republic of Benin, Libya, Namibia Gabon, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, The Gambia, just to name a few countries.
Does it surprise me? No. This is a style of generalization that has always been communicated particularly by international media which usually sums the countries in Africa as one. I do recall watching an international news correspondent report a plane crash in Nigeria “live” whereas he was speaking from Johannesburg, South Africa. In fact, The Economist was also not straying from the trend when it published an article in May 2000 calling Africa, a continent of more than 700 million people and 300,175,000 square kilometers, “The Hopeless Continent”. An article, most Africans, as well as I, find cynical, patronizing and nauseatingly inaccurate.
For the record, the Africa I have been privileged to experience from my Nigerian background and extensive travel thus far is a continent of uniquely interesting culture-rich countries whose indigenes largely exemplify that “life is for living”. We are usually super polite too; the commonest phrases are “welcome”, “please” and “thank you!”. Africa is a continent where race is traditionally seen as descriptive rather than stigmatic and foreigners are usually celebrated rather than resented. A continent of beauty, rhythmic music, rich and very diverse cultures, amazing cuisine, a great history and future. I’d rather have these to be the qualities accentuated by the tourists; but instead, most emphasize the condescending notion of a “country” filled with dying children that need to be ‘helped’. We forget that not even ‘civilized’ countries have been thoroughly cleansed of poverty. I hear comments such as “nothing is for sure in Africa” and wonder when the constancy of change stopped being applicable to every region of the world.
While I recognize that many have good intentions when it relates to volunteer work or exploratory and/or leisure travel on the continent, there is a demonstrated void in humility if the same people do not recognize that having an interest in a region does not necessarily translate into an understanding of it. To fully understand and engage, “helpers” of Africa must not only lose the superiority complex, but must – at minimum – know the country of interest’s name.
This article has been edited for republishing.