A friend of mine moved to the USA last year on a scholarship program at Stanford University. We finally spoke on the phone recently after months and she told me how a guy she likes calls her “Africa”. Initially I laughed because the 2004 film ‘Mean girls’ crossed my mind. I then realized how offensive it is. Not because we’re not proud to be from such a beautiful continent but, her identity is that of a South African and by ignoring that, he will never truly know her. Africa is not a country, it’s a continent with 54 amazing countries. Homogenizing African countries is problematic. Here’s why:
- It leaves room for misconceptions
The Huffington Post wrote an article, Proof That Americans Have Absolutely No Clue About Africa , about what average Americans thought they’d expect to find during the FIFA Wold Cup that was hosted in my country, South Africa, back in 2010. They range from mistaking Nelson Mandela for Morgan Freeman to uncouth memes of black children dancing in “Africa”. These misconceptions are perpetuated by ignorance and not knowing what’s happening in countries outside of your own. I also blame the movie ‘Mean girls’ for using stereotypes about Africa for not-so-funny comedic effect. If you’re gonna make Africa jokes at least make sure they’re funny.
- “Africa” is ambiguous
Like I said, Africa has 54 countries, each country has a variety of cultures, traditions, norms and no we do not all know each other. Each country has beautiful attributes that make it unique. We’re a continent that celebrates diversity. From the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt to Tanzania’s beautiful Mount Kilimanjaro to South Africa’s diverse natural landscapes. These are tourist attractions to you but they’re what we’re born into so those places mean more to us. They’re sacred specimens of where we come from. So respect what we hold sacred enough to know that Table Mountain is not just somewhere “in Africa”.
- African countries develop in different paces
Human suffering is everywhere. Every country in this world experiences poverty, crime, displacement and diseases. I’ll be the first to admit that a majority of African countries experience extremes of such but some countries are actually doing pretty well. Countries like Botswana with world class skyscrapers for instance. So when you’re “going to help the poor in Africa” be specific. On one hand, you’re erasing the progress of developing countries by making them synonymous with poverty and destitution. There are underdeveloped countries but they will never get the help they need from the international community as long as you don’t say their name. Share that country’s specific struggle. You don’t have to know where that country is located on a map but “somewhere in Africa” does not suffice!
- It’s embarrassing
It’s embarrassing for you that doesn’t know that Africa is a continent that is. We’re embarrassed for you. For your ignorance. We’re embarrassed for subjects like Geography, basic concepts taught in basic school level. Imagine visiting an African country and having someone ask you “So how is North America?”, your response would probably be something to the effect of “um…I don’t know” right? I thought so. Engage with a map every once in a while, watch a travel channel so that you do not look dumb when you talk about the African continent.
- You think you know when you clearly don’t
‘The Lion King’ was just a movie, I promise. They too perpetuated a lot of stereotypes in a less than acceptable manner. My pet lion turns three today and yes we are still mourning Mufasa. These stereotypes sound ridiculous but they’re “stereotypes” because people actually believe them. African countries have cities, towns and legislation like everywhere else. “Africa” has developed. Jungles are not our natural habitats, we have wildlife reserves and zoos. ‘Africa’ is not synonymous to ‘jungle’. We wear clothes, we have jobs, world recognized institutions of learning and a large majority are actually fluent in the universal language (English).
My point is that, it’s important to understand that Africa is a continent and within that continent lies beautiful countries with amazing diversity. So from now on, you better start name dropping African countries.