Don’t “Africa” Me

Brenda Wambui
16 July ,2013

“Just landed in the beautiful country of Africa..I can tell you that the world is excited for #TheGifted,” tweeted Rick Ross on June 24th 2013.

In this era of globalization and the Internet, the man still thinks Africa is a country. We may point at our screens and laugh at him for displaying his ignorance, but the truth is, most of us are no better than he is.

Depending on whom you ask, Africa has between 53 and 55 recognized states, and 61 political territories. Some estimates put the number of distinct ethnic groups at over 3000 and most, if not all of them, have their own language. The continent is home to over 1 billion people, with slightly over half being female and over 90% being under 65. To put it into perspective, the only continent larger than Africa is Asia, both in terms of size and population. We know that Africa is not a country, so why do we make sweeping generalizations and treat the continent like a homogenous land mass?

Africa has been many things in the global narrative:

– A paradisiacal savannah where glorious wild animals run free and are one with mother nature
– A dark, hopeless, primitive continent that refuses to be civilized
– The most undemocratic place on the planet; war torn and heaven for strong-men
– A place to “find oneself” (much like Asia)
– Disease. Famine. Hunger. Poverty. HIV/AIDS. More HIV/AIDS. Ebola. Death.
– A homogenous land mass full of black people who all look the same
– A rising continent

I won’t dissect what is wrong with each of these stereotypical narratives; that is not what this is about. This is about why I hate being “Africad”.

There is a ring of truth to most stereotypes. Africa does have wild animals and a beautiful savannah. We do have some war torn countries and strong-men, and there is poverty, hunger and disease in many of these countries. A large number of people have HIV/AIDS, and a majority of Africans are indeed black. Stereotypes are useful to some extent; they help people make quick connections. The first thing you may think of when you hear the word sugar is “sweet”. For others, it may be “diabetes” and as a result, they may want to avoid it. The problem with stereotypes, however, is that they exclude all the people one wants to stereotype who do not exhibit these traits.

Do Africans live on trees and run wild with their pet lions (all called Simba)? Do we all have HIV/AIDS? Are we all poor and starving? Are we all black? Do all African countries have dictators? No. What happens to the Africans who do not satisfy these stereotypes? Are they not African? Stereotypes become extremely dangerous when they are the lens through which one views everything/everyone they encounter. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I have been fortunate enough to travel to other countries, and my first conversations with people there almost always go like this:

A: So you’re from Africa?

Brenda: From Kenya, yes.

A: Wow! (Marvels because they have never met an African, or because I look and behave like a normal person)

A: So what’s Africa like?

                                                            OR

A: I have a friend from Africa! I think he comes from Ghana. (At this point, they expect applause because they have an African friend)

This is one of the things I dislike about being abroad. I always explicitly state that I am from Kenya, yet I continue to answer for the whole of Africa. “Do Africans like beer?” “Wow, I love African hair! You guys can do so much with your hair, it’s unfair!” “Does this place remind you of Africa?” This never stops. War in Sudan? “Ask the African girl.” Egyptian revolution? “Where’s Brenda? We need to ask her what’s going on!” Xenophobic attacks in South Africa? “Brenda, get over here!”

On one hand, it’s commendable that people want to seek information from a source who may know more than they do. They recognize their poverty of information about Africa. They no longer want to make assumptions based on what CNN reports. On the other hand, isn’t the assumption that every African knows what is happening in every part of the continent a stereotype that is equally as damaging?

The rest of the world assumes that we have a shared culture, spirit and heritage; that we are one. That is why Coca Cola has the whole of Africa sharing one Coke. I often ask myself, what brings us together as Africans – other than the fact that we happen to share a continent? Is it our shared heritage? I don’t think we have any. There is no such thing as “African culture”. The regions in Africa (Western, Northern, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa) may have similar cultural elements, but in most cases, that is as far as it goes. Some say it is our skin tone, but we don’t have the same skin tone all over the continent. What brings us together is our shared defensiveness.

Africa has always been reactive in telling its story. Our narrative has long been defined by external forces; it’s always been us against the world. Who said Africa was hopeless? They did, and when they did, we rose up in arms to defend ourselves. “We are not hopeless! We have beauty in Africa! We have beautiful wild animals! Black is not ugly, it is beautiful!” We did this throughout the 90s and the early 2000s. Many pro-African movements came up in this time, and we even recruited non-Africans to the cause. We defended the hell out of Africa.

Who said Africa was rising? They did when they came around, recently. This one caught us a bit off guard. We were so used to defending Africa against negative stereotypes, that when a positive one came along, we did not quite know how to react. We were so used to others disagreeing with us that when they finally agreed with us, we were puzzled. We paused for a while, then shrugged and said, “Hey, let’s jump onto the bandwagon!” We have not looked back since.

Is Africa as a whole rising? That depends. Six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. The number of dictators has reduced overall; Rwanda and Botswana are rising. Egypt is asserting itself. Kenya continues to lead the mobile money revolution. It cannot be argued, however, that the whole of Africa is unequivocally rising. Certain countries are rising. Others? Not so much. This is not to fault those who stand up for Africa. It is good to stand up for yourself whenever you feel you have been misinterpreted or misportrayed. This is to ask a few questions.

First, do you remember that time in the 90s when all the news outlets did was talk about how Asia was rising, and how China was taking over? Neither do I, because this did not happen. Most of us just woke up one day and bam! There they were – the Asian tigers: Singapore, China, India, South Korea and others. I’m sure those who had been reading the signs could tell that this was going to happen when they looked at these countries’ economies, but for the most part, the fanfare surrounding Asia’s growth seems much less when compared to that surrounding Africa’s growth.

The fanfare may seem more because of the current pervasiveness of the Internet; the increasing number of news websites, blogs and social media make everything seem louder. However, I am a firm believer in not succumbing to your own hype. We must not succumb to this “Africa rising” narrative and become complacent. It must not become our rejoinder when confronted with our inequities.

A: The rate of inflation in Kenya is through the roof, the cost of living is too high and corruption just keeps getting worse. What will we do?

B: Chill man, things are looking up! Africa is rising! We are the new frontier!

African countries should stay focused on their growth objectives and not get swayed by positive press. We still have challenges to tackle: poverty, corruption and many more. After all, it is the media pushing this angle. I am willing to bet that when something sexier comes up, the “Africa rising” narrative will be thrown out like yesterday’s garbage.

Second, can we define ourselves proactively instead of reactively? Definitely. Have you ever wondered why people say they are proud to be black, or African, or gay? Isn’t it because someone somewhere made them feel that this is something to be ashamed of? Why do you tell people that you are “proud to be Kenyan/African”? In a proper society, who would expect otherwise? Of course you should be proud to be from wherever you are from. This should be a given. No one should question this to the extent that you have to walk around being proud. You should be able to just BE black/African. You don’t hear people saying they are proud to be straight.

There are two ways to take back your identity from the hands, mouths and pens of others. The first is to proactively define it yourself. As Kenya, or any other country, we should define who we are, what we stand for, what we expect of other countries we interact with, and what we will and will not accept. We should forge this identity independent of others’ expectations and preconceptions. Then, we should stand by it. Saying who you are is not enough, you also have to show who you are by how you act. For example, if we say that we don’t support terrorism, we should not harbour terrorists. The second way is to ignore what others say about you altogether and focus on your work. Eventually, they get tired of talking because you don’t respond, or they see what you’ve been working on while they were talking and shift their focus to that instead. I have a feeling that’s how Asia did it.

Third, how do we view ourselves? Most of us already accepted being bundled together as Africans. When we sell clothes, we say they have African prints. We say we have African shoes/accessories. We talk about “Technology in Africa” because the tech scene in the whole continent is exactly the same, of course. What I wonder, though, is where we get this authority from; the authority to speak on behalf of the whole of Africa, like an all-knowing oracle. When we hear about gay people, we say, “That is so unAfrican!” So what is African? Poverty and disease? What about the several recorded cases of homosexuality in precolonial Africa? All I urge is that we stop speaking on behalf of the whole continent and adopting global outlooks on Africa because we are too lazy to come up with our own. What you speak of is the tech scene in Kenya, not the tech scene in the whole of Africa. What you have on are Maasai sandals, not African sandals.

The word Africa carries too much connotation, and responsibility. I am no longer willing, or worthy, to carry an entire continent’s fears, dreams and expectations on my shoulders, or to be its unofficial ambassador and spokeswoman. I relinquish this duty. Don’t “Africa” me.

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