On being African: Africa is not a country

For the umpteenth time, Africa is not a country and Africans don’t speak African.

Two days ago, I encountered a typical moron – at first I didn’t know she was until several minutes into the conversation. The conversation went like this:

Me: “Hi, how are you? I am in the neighbourhood and I’m …..”

Moron (unapologetically interrupting me): “Oh hi. Wow. Where are you from?”
‘That was random,’ I thought and was about to wow the crap out of her by telling her about my beautiful country when she continued.

Moron (feigning mischief and pointing a wrinkly sun-deprived finger at me): “I guess you are from Africa. Do you speak perfect African or has it been contaminated with English?” She was unfazed as if she’d just asked the most natural question. I was dumbfounded, my jaw was on the pavement – I thought the world had moved on and people knew better than to ask Africans if they spoke African and/or if Africa was a third world country. There are literally thousands of memes on the net reiterating this fact, however, there’s always the sore thumb!

While I was recovering from the shock of that moronic question, she continued: “I am always fascinated by Africans in Europe. They are so normal. You don’t look like a typical African. It’s such a shame the ones left behind are starved and …..!”

Needless to say, it was my turn to unapologetically interrupt: “Woooo, hold on a sec. What do you mean ‘typical African’ and what now about who left behind?
Moron: “Yeah! You know, the ones we see on TV look so desperate, underfed, sick, poor… did you watch that Ross Kemp’s documentary on Africans in Libya?”
I did not have enough bandwidth to take any more. I had to excuse myself out of this ill-informed one-way conversation and walk away – I would have wanted to stay and teach, but I’m not tactful. However, as I left I felt sorry for this woman – it wasn’t her fault that her image of Africa was so distorted, incomplete and ill-informed, she was most likely a daytime TV addict. But then again….. there’s google so easily and readily available that in my opinion ignorance is not bliss.

When I got home later that day, I wondered if somehow, we, the African diaspora, have contributed to this misconception and are to blame because we haven’t done enough to educate the average joes about the continent, it’s many countries, it’s diverse and vibrant cultures, and people – rich and poor, fat and thin, tall and short etc. We haven’t made a big fuss about the modern cities springing up all over Africa with road networks more complicated than the North Circular. Is it up to the ‘average joes’ to educate themselves or is it up to us to change the ‘typical’ African image so it’s not synonymous with poverty and desperation?

This is what I know for sure – what they show on TV is the malnourished child, the impoverished desperate father (think the Libya doc), the remote villages where medicine cannot get to the sick unless you donate £1 per day, the postcodeless villages where Nneka or some girl walks for miles in 100 degrees sun to fetch dirty disease ridden water, the tattily dressed barefooted kids who walk for miles to school only to come back home to look after sick parents, look after goats and take care of younger siblings. This piteous image of Africa has been etched on the minds of the less travelled, the less curious, the less informed, the less educated and the ignorant – not only to emotionally guilt them into parting with cash, but to raise the profile of the so-called charities without whose help and efforts, Africans would surely die. I suppose if I was walking around London half dead from starvation, this woman would have seen the ‘typical’ African?

I will say again – I don’t entirely blame the clueless stranger because all she knows of Africa and Africans are the images sold on TV. I’m sure she’s convinced I only got here because on the day I escaped imminent death, my boat didn’t capsize, or the Italians saved me on time and somehow, I ended up in London. If I told her I bought a ticket, got a VISA and took a direct flight to London she’d be convinced I was lying – another thing we’ve heard countless times about Africans. If I told her I know people in Africa who have never gone a day without food, who as kids watched cartoons like any European kid, were chauffeur driven to school, and had people working for them – she would have no doubt I was mentally ill. Most of all, if I told her there were numerous Africans (past and present), who dedicate their entire life in making it better for the less fortunate by adopting orphans, educating poor children, providing food, clothes and medicines to orphanages etc etc, she, without a doubt, would not believe me – because there is yet another serious misconception that the well-off minority are corrupt and selfish.

To the stranger: Africa is a rich continent – yes, we have issues just like any other continent on earth, but we also have philanthropists just like any other continent, we have rich people and poor people just like any other continent etc. We have almost everything else you’d find anywhere else.

Just in case you didn’t get my drift – Africa is not a country. It’s a vast continent with several countries, millions of people and WIFI [that’s right].


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