For awhile, I thought this topic might be overdone and outdated; that everyone already knew this and there wasn’t a need to talk about it further. But I was mistaken.
I’m pretty sure most people now know that Africa isn’t a country — but that hasn’t stopped many from referring to it as a homogenous unit.
Whether on the news, in a novel, a movie, or in personal conversations, I’m continually surprised by the way people refer to Africa as if it’s a small, homogenous, monolithic place.
People sometimes ask how I like living in Africa. What I want to respond with is something like, “You’re going to have to be a little bit more specific. What do you mean by ‘Africa’? I don’t live in Egypt or South Africa or Morocco or Namibia or DRC or Nigeria.” But I also don’t want to be a jerk… so I usually respond by saying something diplomatic, but corrective, like, “I really like living in Kenya. Nairobi is an exciting, bustling city…” and so on.
The fact is, we need to learn (and probably should already know) that Africa is massive and incredibly diverse. The challenge is that we have to undo decades (if not centuries) of bad PR for the continent. From the “dark continent” bullshit of explorers, to racist and patriarchal colonial rule, to raising money for famine relief with condescending, ignorant songs, the rest of the world has been inundated with misinformation about this area of the world.
The continent is often completely ignored and omitted from important reports and studies.
One of my clients does consulting work in the African health sector (and, yes, I mean Africa — it’s an organization that is based in Kenya, but works throughout the continent). I was doing some research for them and began reading a Deloitte report called, “2020 Global health care sector outlook.” As I was reading this dense, academic document, with its large amounts of data and real-world examples to back up their claims, I soon realized that I hadn’t noticed a single example that was based in Africa.
Out of curiosity (and frustration), I took the time to audit every paragraph of the document, writing down each country mentioned by name. This “global” report never mentions a single African country. The only time that it even acknowledges its existence is in a stat about increasing investment in the “Middle East/Africa.” As if “Africa” wasn’t general enough. The most frustrating thing is that there are so many exciting things happening in the health sector in Africa and it would have benefited the report and its readers to include those examples.
When it is talked about, it’s usually only in relation to tragedy, poverty, etc.
When Africa is mentioned, it’s usually overly-simplistic at best — ignorant and racist at worst. Yes, there is poverty and corruption. But we can’t deny that these problems also exist in other areas of the world. And the challenges vary significantly from country to country (even city to city) and are incredibly nuanced and complex. I’m not trying to pretend that it’s a perfect place or doesn’t need to improve in various areas. But the more I learn about the world, the more convinced I am that things like poverty and corruption vary in type more than they do in degree.
And what about all the incredibly exciting things happening on the continent? Why aren’t more people talking about that? I can really only speak about East Africa (mostly Kenya) with any level of confidence, but the examples from this region alone are numerous.
Safaricom’s M-Pesa was the world’s first example of mobile money. Rwanda and Kenya have both banned plastic bags (something the U.S. isn’t even close to doing) and are on their way to banning plastic bottles as well.
Free WiFi is being provided on public transportation, writers and intellectuals are influencing politics and culture, artists are beautifying cities, avid readers are dedicating their careers to revitalizing libraries as centers for learning and creativity for the community. And that’s barely scratching the surface!
We also shouldn’t be surprised by these exciting, innovative examples. In the same way that every place in the world has problems, every place in the world also has creativity and resilience. The African continent is no different.
I’m not expecting everyone to be an expert. But we can raise the bar.
No one’s asking you to be an Africa expert. I’m not an expert on Asia or South America and don’t plan on becoming one. I’m not even an Africa expert! I live in Nairobi, Kenya, which is one very specific area of an incredibly huge land mass where more than 1,500 languages are spoken!
But, think about it: when I travel to Seattle, Washington, I don’t tell people I’m going to North America. Because I at least understand the bare minimum — that North America includes places as varied and diverse as Oaxaca, New York City, Calgary, Little Rock, Puebla, and Yellowknife. It would be absurd for me to expect someone to be satisfied with me telling them I was traveling to a continent without any additional details.
So the next time you’re tempted to just say “Africa,” take it one step further — even if that’s just to say “a certain country in Africa”! It’s better than propagating the misinformation that this continent is homogenous and lacks complexity. We don’t all have to be experts, but I think we can definitely raise the bar.
And, finally, for a much better written and more profound article on this topic, please, please, please read “How to Write About Africa” by the late Binyavanga Wainaina.