I Thought Africa Was a Country! Aren’t You All Naked Savages Living in a Jungle Desert?: Why These Stereotypes Ultimately Don’t Matter

An African abode

Ladies and gentlemen, here I am yet again with my two cents on an issue that we as Africans run into when we are in foreign countries A LOT. I have realized that my writing style is a very disjointed incomplete one and so forgive me but I will say this often, I know that this article doesn’t capture the whole complexity of the situation, but hopefully it will stir your thought in the right direction.

Have you ever heard or known someone who has heard the following:

Wow! I thought Africa was a country?

Do you guys have buildings/pizza/razors/any modern Western luxury items?

Don’t you guys all live in deserts?

Now I know that if you haven’t heard these things said directly to you, you know someone who has and usually that results in a conversation that goes a little something like this:

(With frown on the face or hands on the hip) “These (insert name of countrymen here) are so ignorant. How can they think that Africa (insert ignorant comment here)? They are so ignorant….(subtext of statements that follow: they are so ignorant, they should understand us, our home and our culture the way we understand them)”

Now that I have written it out, I hope you are begining to see just how ridiculous this conversation is. Now I am not judging anyone, I have been guilty of indulging in the above conversation, one too many times, HOWEVER, in the grand scheme of things conversations such as the above fall into the category of useless conversations that will never really take us anywhere. I say this for a couple of reasons:

West African woman

1) We Don’t Know Much About Them Either

For all our posturing about how the white man is ignorant and how they should know better, we aren’t exactly Einstein’s when it comes to foreign culture. I live in Australia. Now if you live in Australia, be honest, what did you know about this place except Neighbours, Home and Away and kangaroos before you came here…..hmmm………..

……no, it’s ok, I’ll wait………………….

Now I know that a lot of you (here comes the sarcasm) are probably saying:

Mwangi, my good man, I knew about Crowded House, the Aboriginal land rights issues, relations that Australia has with East Timor, the Australian Federal system, Ned Kelly, the marsupial inhabitants of Australia and all this when I was only five years old. That’s because I am a wordly, educated men and they are not.

In other words for all our judgment we are defying rule number one of morality: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We don’t know much about them or bother to learn much about them, let’s extend them at least the same courtesy.

West African child

2) How on Earth Would You Expect them to Know or Even Care About Your Country?

There are, at best guess, 195 countries in the world. We are 6 billion people in the world. You are getting annoyed because someone who lives half way around the world doesn’t know much about your little country. If you didn’t live in your country would you know about your country? Would you have any reason whatsoever to care about your country?Do the relations and what’s going on in your country have any bearing upon the lives of this country half way across the world?

I am sorry to be speaking with such a harsh tone, but I am simply doing so because whenever we condemn people for their ignorance we do so with such an unnecessarily bitter tone.

The Reason I Think We Get Angry

In my humble opinion, the reason we get angry is because we are hurt. We are hurt that our lives, our country, our people and our culture don’t matter enough that other people would want to know about them or understand them. It hurts us because it reminds us that we are away from a place where we matter and we are now in a place where we are just one of thousands of cultures.

I think this is so, because logically, I think we all know, on some level, that it is unreasonable for us to expect them to know much about us when they don’t really care that much – though the whole Africa being a country thing, Wow! Who woulda thought?

African man with his instrument

Educate People

No denying that a lot of Westerners perceive themselves to be better than us and there’s no denying the complexity and imbalance that exists when it comes to immigrants relating to members of their host nation. Ultimately though, I don’t think that huddling up to criticize people for not knowing the facts about our country will take us anywhere. Instead, let’s take it upon ourself to either educate the ignorant and bring a little light to their lives or work on building our country up so that it’s unavoidable on the map.

For the Ignorant: 4 Really Quick Facts About Africa

This section is for all the ignorant people who don’t know the facts about Africa. Four really quick ones:

Africa

1) Africa is NOT a country. It is a continent with 53 countries, 6 of which are islands just of the mainland of Africa. South Africa is a country, not a province of the country, Africa.

2) Africa has more than 900,000,000 people in it. We have well over 1000 languages within the continent and we had many cultures and empires long before colonialism.

3) Not every country in Africa is a starving poor country. Botswana, Namibia and a few other countries are doing a pretty good job of taking care of their populations.

4) We have Western conveniences. In Africa the disparities in wealth are disgustingly huge and the cultures among the classes are extraordinarily different. Poor people struggle just to survive. For the most part the wealthy live Westernized, pampered lives with stuff like ipods,computers,satellite televisions, Mercedes Benzes and all that other stuff. The level of materialism in a lot of African countries scares me at times.

There is a lot more that can be said about this topic but I think I will leave it at that. I dunno if this article will annoy you, turn you off, get you thinking, so leave me a little message or response and let me know what you think. Till then

Don’t be scared of your inadequacy but instead of your infinite potential,

Mwangi

10 Comments

  • By mshairi, March 22, 2008 @ 1:01 am

    I think I get angry with ignorance especially where Africa and other developing countries are concerned because there is absolutely no need for it. Most people living in the developed world have libraries (including online ones), computers, the internet, etc. There is no reason why they should not know and learn about the world around them.

    Something funny and kind of related, a winner in one of those reality show competitions here in the UK says she has never heard of Obama or Clinton. Even my 9 year old niece has heard of Obama and Clinton:)

  • By Mwangi, March 22, 2008 @ 1:22 am

    In spite of that access to all these facilities, do they really have any reason to know our country whatsoever. It’s not like when we were in Nairobi, Melbourne changing their mayor would have a big effect on us, as our internal affairs probably don’t have a big effect on them. I think we should cut them a bit more slack because if tables were turned we would probably be as ignorant as they are.

    The levels of ignorance some times when you come to the West are astounding though, no doubt about that.

  • By Caustic Blonde, March 23, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

    This is well written and a good read. I think one of the things we tend to forget is that most people in the world are struggling to just get by in life and not much thought is given to anything else around them. Some of the stereotypes about people from Africa ( Aren’t You All Naked Savages Living in a Jungle Desert?) I think you can blame Hollywood and the media. Too many people get all their information from the television which can be very dangerous.

  • By Mwangi, March 24, 2008 @ 2:33 am

    @caustic: I honestly lost count of the number of times that I have heard a statement like, “We are doing X because the way we are portrayed in the media is inaccurate/incomplete etc etc”, so I couldn’t agree more about definitely not taking television seriously as a source of information.
    Gr8 point about everyone tending to have a very myopic vision restricted to what affects them and their lives. Unless we really have any self-interested reason to learn, a lot of us really can live lives where we know very little about the world around us and still do OK.

  • By kookimebux, February 2, 2009 @ 4:52 am

    Hello. And Bye. :)

  • By Mwangi, February 2, 2009 @ 4:57 am

    @Kooki: Hello and bye to you too :)

  • By Piper, May 5, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

    Mwangi,

    I’m a white, American, female, studying in France, with friends I consider family from and living in Senegal. In writing a research paper about African immigration in France, I happened upon your website. It lifts my spirit to see your point of view that reflects my own. I’ve been interviewing French and African people on the matter, and both sides tend to blame the other. It’s refreshing to hear someone who is willing to look at all point of views and to consider things from both perspectives. I admire your positive outlook and proactive approach to making changes. If everyone in the world took the time to do this, there would be no racism, no discrimination, and no hate. Keep it up and best of luck to you!

    Piper

  • By Mwangi, May 7, 2009 @ 6:43 am

    @Piper: Wow, you make me sound like a saint :P . Thanks, I am glad I could be of use to you :)

  • By stace, January 13, 2012 @ 5:50 pm

    Mwangi, so funny. I know this comment is long late but…just got an idea. I am Aussie and just returned from Kenya and dad asked during our first five conversations I was there, “are there cars in Kenya?” The media portrays Somali war/kidnapping foreigners, lion and zebra documentaries, world vision starving kid with fly ads and AIDS. I had no idea everyone in Kenya was so mega Christian and philiosophical (my atheist friend commented because africans are not educated or civilised and don’t know better than to believe in God), Kenyans were so intellectual and obsessed by education (a customer at a posh pub in Briton said African slook like they are crawling on all fours when he watches the news) or so resourceful and entrepreneurial such as the high school student who invented Mpesa mobile money transfer. I personally see a shitty system of power and corruption the small man aren’t getting up. I say Kenyans are a bit like Americans with the motivational books and personal development (every book store is about improving one’s business/relationship with God/health etc)but I admire the positive attitude and the faith which I think Australia and particularly cool alternative supposedly intellectual arty Melbournite who claim they are all messed up on antidepressants lack. There is a real movement in the West, or Australia at least that disses everything,and cynicism has replaced religion in some circles. I like that Kenyans have faith that even if things are shit today they will turn around. Didn’t meet a single person on anti depressants the whole time I was there.

    Conversely, I was asked if I’ve ridden a kanagaroo (by two Americans, one Kenyan and an East European). If Australians are racist (embarrassing for me). If we have maids (not unless your a billionaire or just a very part time once a week or so cleaner). If everyone is so rich and no one is every unhappy or dies etc.

    I did a politics major at Melbourne uni and no one ever mentioned African politics although european, asian and US was on offer. The history of any African country outside of South Africa’s apartheid was never detailed and I got most of my info from The Power of One anyway.

    I guess you are right, once people have a reason to know, they get over things. My parents googled Kenya and apart from safety worries about Al-Shabaab etc, have a wider understanding of Kenya as distinct from other African countries. Which means my uncle then mentions he had a friend who lived in Kenya but in the “western area” as everyone is afraid of the “jungle” or whatever the Africans live in.

    Dad asked about Western hotels. I replied, “you mean the Hilton? I went there to use the toilet but their prices were the same as the Hilton here so I just stayed at the regular guest house, it had flushing water, cleaned daily and respectable people.”

Other Links to this Post

  1. I Need Your Help » The Displaced African — April 18, 2008 @ 3:05 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment



Sitemap