Understanding Africa : Understanding the Worlds Most Misunderstood Continent : Introduction
Here at talkingdrums.com We will be making a series of posts dedicated to challenging the most common misconceptions about Africa and Africans.
We will start it off with an article written by Julie D Hackett.
In 2014, Italy’s latest flagship aircraft carrier, the Cavour, rolled into Luanda’s bay as part of a 20 country tour across the Middle East and Africa. Its mission was twofold: to showcase Italy’s military might and to offer free medical and humanitarian services. Friends at the Italian Embassy invited me for a night of opera and Italian aperitivi aboard the massive 244 meter vessel where I got to talking with an Italian sailor. He was an older gentlemen, possibly in his fifties and visiting Africa for the first time. I asked him how his experience had been so far and he lit up at the chance to share some of his impressions.
He started with Cape Town, gushing over its spectacular beauty. I nodded my head in agreement – Cape Town is indeed a stunning metropolis that hosts the perfect meeting between nature and urban development. The sailor went on singing the praises of the city and how nice the people were. It wasn’t long before I picked up on the fact that his impressions were actually rooted in a profound sense of shock about what he had seen. My suspicions were confirmed when he exclaimed, “I couldn’t believe I was in Africa!”
I paused for a minute. What did he mean he couldn’t believe he was in Africa? Did he think Cape Town was in Asia? I asked him to clarify, already having a pretty good guess about what he would say. He confirmed once again by saying, “I didn’t think Africa had any nice cities like that!” He didn’t miss a breath before adding how he was surprised that each place he had seen was so different. At this point, I felt a bit annoyed. I wondered how he could have thought Africa didn’t have any nice cities. How could he think that in a continent of over 50 countries, the cities would be just one big blur of sameness? I decided not to crush his euphoric boyish enlightenment keeping in mind that to many outsiders, African is still viewed as one big primitive country with spear-wielding, loin-cloth wearing, mud-hut dwellers.
As an American who has lived in Angola for the last three years and traveled to just over one fifth of the countries on the continent, I have become increasingly aware of the prevailing negative views of Africa. When I visit the US and tell people where I live, it usually draws a blank stare. Some admit that they don’t know where Angola is, but generally the first question I get is about Ebola or if I am in any danger. It always serves as a stark reminder that Africa is still painted as a black hole of sadness, war and desperation in need of the charity, grace and fixing of the first world. This is the message that has been sold over and over to “rich world” audiences through mass media and public campaigns, asking people to dig deep into their hearts and pockets to throw money at a distant problem called “Africa”.
So when will we stop casting our condescension over the great “dark continent”? When will we stop portraying the countries of Africa as a lost cause that can only be saved by our generosity? Bob Geldof’s 3rd rendition of “Do They Know its Christmas?” released in December 2014 in an effort to raise money to fight Ebola, proved that in some circles, the narrative about Africa is still the same. While it is undeniable that there is an unacceptable amount of human suffering in many countries in Africa, similar suffering happens in many parts of the world (do people know that parts of Mississippi, USA have higher rates of maternal mortality than some sub-Saharan African countries?), but Africa takes center stage as the one place that cannot seem to rise to the occasion of humanity of its own volition.
While there has been a huge push to strike down harmful stereotypes and to change the way that people see Africa (mainly on the part of Africans themselves), we still see and hear a very narrow side of the story. Some of the same issues do persist, including poverty and conflict, however, we rarely get a balanced perspective which shows a picture of progress and some of the philanthropic efforts initiated by Africans who have actually lived the reality they seek to improve.
As a child, I carried with me a vivid image of Africa – a distant and scary place where children like me suffered unimaginable pain. Montages of skeletal, fly infested babies dying from the devastation of drought and famine were played over and over on television. Now, almost thirty years later, it seems we still have to dig deep to find positive images of Africa, beyond a travel agency advertisement of one of Kenya’s amazing safari parks or Zanzibar’s breathtaking coastline. What about the positive images of individuals from Africa and the numerous African organizations that are striving for change and achieving significant progress and development?
It might come as a surprise to the outside world to see pictures of the waterfront promenade that spans three kilometers of Luanda’s bay full of joggers, bikers and roller bladers on any given night of the week, or when they find out that plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda. It may be completely unexpected to learn that South Africa has a 180,000 square meters shopping mall in Durban, or that the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (yes my friends, Egypt is in Africa) was voted one of the top 25 most modern buildings in the world by CNN Travel, or that Windhoek Lager, a fast growing premium beer from Namibia is now sold abroad in 20 countries or even that cell phones are being used even in the most remote areas of numerous countries in Africa for all kinds of life saving financial and informational transactions. And how can we ignore all of the bright minds and innovations coming from Africa? Dele Olojede, the Pulitzer prize winning author from Nigeria or the 22 Nobel Laureate Winners from Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, to name a few.
The recognition of these achievements should not however, divert attention from the blaring poverty that has stunted the potential of many communities in Africa. After working on community health and immunization for two years, I witnessed with my own eyes a level of human suffering that should not exist anywhere. I saw babies shrinking away from crippling malnutrition and children not even 10 years old abandoned on the streets and shining shoes for pennies a day survival. I walked through slums where mounds of trash blocked road entrances and children played in nuclear green water full of microbes and disease. I have seen women carrying 20 kilos of pineapples on their head for hours in the punishing sun. In short, I have seen things that have made me wonder how so much suffering can still exist in the 21st century anywhere.
However, even through all of this, I have met and worked with people who want to help improve life in their countries and to bring about more equity. I have also met Africans who are educated and successful who do not belong to the bloodlines of the ruling elite – a common misconception of middle class working Africans. Yes, there are still many issues that need resolution and to be addressed in African countries, but isn’t that the same for most countries around the world? There is a much larger picture, a bigger story of Africa, that is still not being told.
However, if we continue to listen to and believe the same narrative which only paints Africa as a poor continent with such hopelessness and despair, we will only help to perpetuate a massive disservice, not only to those Africans who are succeeding and giving back to their societies, but also to those who really do need help. When we stop viewing them as victims, maybe we can actually begin to achieve some measure of equality – the kind of equality that aid organizations and governments constantly include in their mission statements and fifteen year plans. Once we stop seeing them as lesser human beings and start seeing them as drivers of their own destiny, perhaps we can stop confusing pity with compassion. Maybe then we will recognize the strength, diversity and humanity that exists across the collection of countries that make up one of the most dynamic, vibrant continents on earth with a potential that we can only dream of.
Africa is not a place. It is a continent with many places.