Looking Past Our Racist Assumptions To See Africa
“You have to Orientalize us.” my new friend in Tunis told me.
“No,” I told her, with tight-lipped determination. “I will write the hell out of it, and people will read it.”
I said this like I could will people to read about post-revolutionary Tunisia, simply because it was fascinating, complicated, salient on the world stage, and told us so much about what new nationhood in the 21st century might be. Most of our Africa stories cast everyone over there as the inscrutable and irrelevant other, but it’s just not true. I wanted to show how much we all had in common, and I said so.
She just laughed at me, not totally unkindly, and told me no one would read my articles.
She was right, of course. I was determined, but I still gave up by my fourth article.
After weeks of work, I had to abandoned my series. Most of the pieces I’d done to that point never even broke a thousand hits. My editor had the patience of a saint about it, but I had a family to support, and I knew I wasn’t going to keep pay coming in with those numbers. (You can read them here: Whither the Revolution? The Quiet Streets of Tunis, The Walls had Ears. I am still sitting on notes and recordings that are pure gold.)
This was in 2013, and I had gone to write a multipart series on how Tunisia was trying to work out what a state should look like in the 21st century: its struggles, economic problems, lack of jobs, but also some very strong parts of it. I went because in 2012 a Tunisian activist said to me, feeling crushed with frustration: “Did we even have a revolution?”
I said “Well, something sure-as-hell happened.”
I interviewed people from all over. Old people who remembered the French, hip hop radio DJs, activists, NGO people, congressional assistants, start-up folks, secularists, Muslims, just random people on the street, if they happened to speak English. I went to events and took long walks. I struggled with taxis. I cooked a lot, and tried to mess with Tunisian recipes. I fucking loved it, and I thought, I can write what I love. Tunisia is in northern Africa, by the way. It’s next to Libya. Two over from Egypt.
It’s the country where they shot the Tatooine scenes in the first Star Wars movie.
I first fell in love with Africa 12 years earlier, at the other end. I drove around the southern bit of the continent, mostly camping with the occasional hotel thrown in. I got sick and recovered. I saw cities, forests, and deserts. I made friends, and saw things off-putting and lovely. I stayed in touch with people for a while after. On the whole, I discovered that Africa is largely populated by people with the same picayune concerns I have, surrounded by slightly different flora and fauna.
This is why I came to hate the term “First world problems.” Most Africans I’ve met on either end of the continent, if I complained about cell phone battery life or social media or dealing with overbearing neighbors or whatever, would chime in with sympathy and understanding.
That’s not to say there are no differences — culture and economics are real, as is distance. You can find plenty of differences between a Zambian villager, a middle class tech worker in Tunis, and me, but pointing out those differences is all we’ve done with Africa for decades. The media in America has taught me that my western life is a complicated scene of interlocking facets of modernity, and Africa is a smoking crater, and so we have nothing in common.
Because of my own experience, Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s post spoke to my frustration as an American writer also trying to write about the places and people and events of Africa for an American audience. I would never claim the expertise of Umebinyuo or any other person born and raised in an African nation, but I felt if I could be honest, do my research, study, interview, and try, I could bring a good story back home to the people I do know well, and who know so little about Africa. I still believe that, I just don’t believe I can make a living doing it.
I’d wanted to tell a different story, about the things we do have in common, and why these things are as important or more than things we don’t. I wanted to write interesting stories about what real life was like in countries that have the misfortune to be globally branded as African. But it became clear to me over time that if I tried, my career was going to be the smoking crater.
This is not new. That nobody publishes stories which reveal that most of Africa isn’t at war, that many countries are working democracies, and people are developing their own sectors in every industry that you can think of, that sometimes you can even drink the water right out of the tap, has been cried far and wide. But blame for this is usually laid at the media’s feet. I’m not going to for a moment claim we are innocent, we write all those crappy articles about Africa-as-smoking-crater. But I do want to share some blame with you, dear readers.
If it’s not Ebola or Boko Haram, if there’s no one getting shot or starved to death, if photogenically miserable little black children aren’t staring piercingly into your soul while obviously dying, you people never click the fucking link.
This is because you are, on the whole, pretty damn racist, and you don’t really like your visions of African misery challenged by reality. You also don’t like it when someone tells you that Africa has more than just black people in it, in fact it’s a racial and cultural cornucopia. I know, people are going to see this and be all “hashtag-not-all-Americans-slash-Europeans” but I have to call bullshit. Western interest in the real lives of the people of the many African societies is so diminishingly small many of you still think it’s a country.
Here’s a few key things to know about Africa:
- It’s a fucking continent. It contains 54 countries. It has deserts, rain forests, beach resorts, massive cities, very cold mountains, too much water, not enough water, poor people, rich people, and middle class people. It is, in fact, the second largest and second most populated continent.
- Let’s revisit that middle class thing. It’s got a little over a billion people. Of those a quarter or a third — depending on which metrics you use — are middle class. That’s a middle class which is around the size of the North American middle class. Not just the USA, but a continent-to-continent comparison.
- While some countries in Africa are greying, (meaning the birthrate is low, combined with youth emigration) African demographics in general skew young, and increasingly ambitious. That means if you people in the US/Europe/Japan want any working tax payers supporting your social security payments in your old age, you’d better start courting young African immigrants.
- But good luck with that, because many African economies are growing fast, and infrastructure is springing up all over the place. There’s a lot of reasons for people to stay in Africa, depending on which of the 54 countries they’re in; some are doing better than others. Also, Africans know the West is racist and will treat them like crap, so our ability to attract them will be limited.
- In many African nations, access to women’s healthcare is better than it is in Texas. That is, admittedly, a damn low bar, and they should do better.
- Africa has had eight women as heads of state. Continental North America has had one, in Canada, for 5 months. (There was also Acting President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot of Haiti, but if there’s somewhere you regard even more as a smoking crater than Africa, it’s Haiti.)
- There isn’t much famine in Africa. In fact, in many countries, obesity is becoming a public health crisis. Sound familiar, America?
- When you get down to it, we’re all Africans. That’s where the human species comes from. So it’s fair to say Africans, on the whole, have done pretty well around the world. Certainly better than all the other hominids we’ve encountered.
- African history isn’t just a dark story of native tribes living hunter-gatherer lives. That’s a lie promulgated by 19th century anthropologists who were drafted to support the scientific racism at the time. Somehow, after throwing out most of the scientific racism as the garbage it was, no one has bothered to update the bullshit made up about Africa. When most of our ancestors were barely banging rocks together, people from the region around the Horn of African were smelting iron for the first time and establishing trade with the Mesopotamian civilizations and that other great African civilization, Egypt.
- Sub-Saharan Africa also witnessed a few great empires while Europe was having a dark age, and established some of the great libraries of history. The Library of Timbuktu (in Mali) also housed a bunch of the Islamic research Europeans based their scientific age on. So that was pretty handy.
- The debt America owes to Africa isn’t mainly the Atlantic Slave Trade; it’s the debt all of humanity owes to the mother of our species. Africa is the cradle of both our biology and culture, and it has remained as vibrant, dynamic, and full of complicated drama as it was thousands of years ago.
The many nations of Africa have few universal qualities. There is little that unifies Africa or the African experience, beyond getting ignored by many outsiders, and fending off exploitation by various transnational business interests. But my desire to get my people reading and understanding events in the many disparate regions of Africa isn’t just an eat-your-vegetables form of journalism; these stories are important to the future of everyone on this planet.
Africa is the region of the planet most expected to grow in the next 50 years. It’s the home of some of the last untapped natural resources, in particular, ones that drive our technology. It has a history of leap frogging technology, and there’s no reason to think it won’t keep doing that. It’s a place with diversity in governance, monetary adaptability, and cultures that often teach a kind of resilience we’re all going to need in the coming age of climate-driven civil decline.
It’s possible that we’ll wake up one day to realize we need the communities of Africa a hell of a lot more than they need us. So maybe we should learn more about that, and not the Africa-as-failed-black-wilderness that the media steadily feeds our racism and sense of superiority.
And for chrissakes, would you editors commission articles from Ijeoma Umebinyuo? This is embarrassing.
Photo of Great Zimbabwe from Vinz