I have recently been exposed to a lot of people who are completely ignorant about Africa.
To a certain extent, I understand that it’s really not their fault. They didn’t learn about Africa in history in high school and all they really ever hear about ‘the dark continent’ is that there are plagues of every kind, famines of titanic proportion and wars that leave thousands limbless.
Now, these things do happen every day and they do indeed provide important context for understanding Africa. But they aren’t the be-all and end-all of our story. Far from it! Africa is a continent of layered meanings, multiple histories and equally diverse people. From the Muslim north to the predominantly French-speaking west to the multicultural east right down to the savvy south, Africa boasts over 50 countries rich with language and living.
So I am starting to take offense at people who insist on classifying the way I behave or cook or relate to things as ‘African’. What does that really mean? Can someone please define African-ness for me so that I can understand what they are talking about?!
In case you might be one of those people who thinks that Africa is a lump of land somewhere in the south of the world where everyone speaks one language and lounges about about half-naked, spear in hand, cleaning our canine teeth of our afternoon meal of raw wild meat, THINK AGAIN. Here’s a list of facts that might help you.
Africa is not:
1) A COUNTRY!
So some people love to harp on about this one. Every sentence they say starts with, “In Africa…” or every question they ask goes, “Is that an African way of doing XYZ?” If you were to ask me what the Zimbabwean way of doing things was, I would still come up blank for a concrete answer because even Zimbabwe, small country that it is, is full of a range of diversity that cannot be summed up by national classification.
2) A COUNTRY AND DOES NOT SPEAK ONE LANGUAGE
So I have been asked if I can communicate with Nigerians in ‘African.’ Goodness me, I once even met a girl who asked me if I spoke ‘African’. Boy was I tempted to ask her German little self if she spoke ‘European’. Come on people! Use a little bit more of those brain cells and investigate our continent. If you did, you might realise that different parts of Africa were colonised by different western nations, hence a range of languages spoken. And even beyond that, we have tribes from all over. Could we really all speak one unified little secret African code?
3) ALL POOR AND BLEAK AND HOPELESS
According to a recent study, one in three Africans now falls within the middle class social bracket. The study found that by 2010, Africa’s middle class had risen to about 34% of the continent’s total population, or about 313 million people – up from around 196 million (27%) in 2000. The statistics are heavily skewed in favour of North Africa and the definition of ‘middle class’ is open to a lot of criticism. But still, the fact that Africa has people who break the commonly held stereotype of mass poverty and suffering is refreshing. I was asked by a well-meaning girl, last week, if I came from the part of Africa where children have bloated bellies and don’t get enough food.
What part of Africa is that, I wonder.
Africa has poor people and extremely rich ones too. And yes, we also have a middle ground. So once again, please let’s do our homework first before asking some of these questions.
4) IS NOT AN ETERNAL BEGGING BOWL
Okay, I admit it. Africa relies a lot on donor funding just to get by. But do you know what the second greatest source of funding in Africa is beyond foreign direct investment? Remittances!
Yes, according to the World Bank, remittances to Africa reached almost USD 40 billion last year. Donor funding is number 3 in terms of cash inflows to
Africa. So contrary to popular belief, Africa’s main sources of money are trade and business, and the enterprise of Africans abroad who send money back home to their families and investments.
Ha, I bet you didn’t see that one coming!
5) ALL BLACK
Now please, let’s stop terrorising all non-black folk who identify themselves as African. Yes, Africa has white people, mixed-race folk and those of Asian and Arabic descent too! I have white friends who get the weirdest stares when they tell non-Africans that they are from the continent. For your information, South Africa has about 4.5 million white people so do not be surprised!
Once again, I urge people who find this impossible to believe to consult their text books or encyclopaedias or whatever they may use to learn more about Africa’s people. We really are diverse!
I feel happier now that I have gotten that off my chest! I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to realise just how little people know about this place, and how much they are missing. There are a lot of things that Africa is not. But there are also a lot of things that Africa is – beautiful, bruised, fast, slow, friendly, warring, warm, cold with death, alive with possibility.
Regardless of where we come from or what language we speak, we the diverse people of Africa have proven time and again our resilience and determination to survive. So get out to Africa and watch the seasoned craftsmen of Ghana weave a kente cloth, or wake up to the peaceful hum of morning prayer over Addis Ababa, or watch the Tswanas kick the afternoon dust as they dance their eloquent traditional dances.
Africa tells its own stories every single day – just be willing enough to listen.