In the year 2014, the African Students Association of Ithaca College in New York launched a photo campaign called ‘The Real Africa: Fight the Stereotype’. The purpose of this social media initiative was to educate and raise awareness about the common stereotypes surrounding Africa and its people; misunderstandings like Africa being a country rather than a diverse continent of more than 50 countries.
For each photograph, each student posed with a different African flag and came up with a simple quote to disprove the ignorant or offensive remarks they hear about Africa. Statements like “Africans do not all look alike,” “Africa is not a country”, “Africa is not a land filled with diseases”, and “I don’t speak ‘African’ because ‘African’ is not a language” were some of the most powerful rebuttals from this campaign that I have ever seen.
The stereotypes these students set out to disprove with this campaign are unfortunately all too common when it comes to the African continent. Perhaps, this unfortunate reality could be because the West has a perception problem when it comes to my home continent. It could also have more to do with the fact that when its mainstream media speaks about Africa, it focuses on the continent’s catastrophes and poverty. Whatever the reason, the result has led to these narratives about Africa; a misconception that has the effect of conflating a single country with a one billion-strong continent.
Instances of this stereotype are too numerous to count. For instance a few years ago, the former president of the United States, George Bush in a public statement relayed that “…Africa is a country that suffers from incredible diseases”. Sarah Palin has categorically stated that Africa is a country as has countless Western celebrities and public figures. As if that were not enough, this Time magazine article exploring “Africa’s Drinking Problem” took a few scattered facts about alcoholism in Kenya and created a story about the entire continent’s issues with alcohol.
Offensive statements such as the above are still made to this day by public and ordinary folks alike. Musicians announcing their world tours, list 10 venues in the US, 10 in Europe, five in Asia and none in Africa. The artists who ‘know better’ include a city in Johannesburg, and declare that they did their tours in “Africa” and walk away with their noses in the air. Such stereotypical remarks about Africa pissed me off for many years and I can assure you, the same is true for all your “African friends”. It is a bit disingenuous that in 2020, I would have to be writing this article about a continent that has existed before many others, but then here we are.
The message of this article is quite simply that Africa is not a country. It is in fact the second largest continent just behind Asia; bigger than Europe, North America, South America, Australia and Antarctica. It’s a continent so big and diverse that it boasts of 56 individual countries all independent with different systems, policies and identities. Africa has five subregions: North Africa, East Africa, Central Africa, West africa, and Southern africa, all filled with booming populations. This continent is so big that it can be compared to the combined landmasses of China, the United States, India, Japan and much of Europe.
It has a population of 1.2 billion people making it the second most populous continent in the world ahead of all the other continents except Asia. In fact, the United Nations predicts that by 2100, half of the world’s most populous countries will be found in Africa and right now, Nigeria is already on that list. As if this isn’t enough, studies that screen DNA markers in different populations have found that the African continent has the highest level of genetic diversity in the world. This makes sense when you consider that Africa is the starting point for the human race, with scientists declaring that the world’s most ancient race was found on the continent.
In addition, the African continent is incredibly multilingual and home to thousands of languages. It’s unfathomable really. To provide you with more context here, I am Nigerian and my country is home to over 250 ethnic groups speaking over 800 languages and dialects. Here, even though English is the official tongue, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo are far more common as first languages. French, English and German have all been official languages in Cameroon, but Fulfulde, Ewondo or Frananglais are just as official. For its part, South Africa has about 11 official languages, including Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English.
Now in terms of ecosystems, when people from the Global West think of Africa, they tend to think only of its savannas, its animals or the dry Sahara. As much as those exist here, Africa also contains mountain ranges, rainforests, wetlands, shrublands, coasts with coral reefs and barrier islands, and great lakes, which include Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika. And the pyramids? Those wonders of the Ancient world are in Egypt, on the northeastern part of the continent.
So when you tell your Nigerian friend of your friend from Kenya presuming that the former could know the latter, understand now why you will be looked at in consternation. Out of the 1.2 billion people in the continent, what is the likelihood that your Nigerian pal will have met your Kenyan friend, from another country and region of the continent? If I meet you in Italy, gush about my friends from Ireland and expect you to know them, you’d look at me the same way. Beyond the foregoing differences though lies the most critical distinction of all; the differences of identity both culturally and otherwise.
Africa comprises a large number of tribes and ethnic groups most of which exist as nations of their own. The idea that if you know one African country, you know them all couldn’t be farther from the truth. Of the thousands of tribes and ethnic groups that make up the African population, each tribe consists of genetically different people with their unique cultures, religion, and histories. It is the aggregate of all these diverse identities that make us who we are, shape our communities, distinctively connect us and make us identify our allegiance to each other, and to our lands.
Clearly, the portrayal of Africa as a country does much harm. It narrates a single story of a region on the world’s map plagued with poverty and corruption, a barren wasteland filled with starving citizens. This in turn leads to a systemic failure to create or adopt solutions to “Africa’s problems” because the needs of one African country differs from those of others. When these solutions, engineered in the West by ‘Doctors of African cultures and peoples’ who have visited just a couple of African cities at most, fail, there is the collective declaration that nothing ever works in Africa.
The problem with having a singular narrative of most things in life is that more often than not, that narrative is incomplete. The idea that Africa is a poverty-stricken country is the reason you can’t understand how people in African countries watch the Olympics on the same devices and screens you use in the West. Even if it originates from a simple misunderstanding or your lack of knowledge of others, this erroneous perception of Africa as a country has the malicious intent of suppressing and prejudicing Africans you have never even met.
If we let this go on, we would all end up with yet another label for the white man’s convenience and frankly, we can do without any more of that. African countries have their fair share of struggles, and they also have thoroughly educated people driving change daily. We have our sorrows, and we also have our joys and little miracles. Just like any other continent, Africa deserves fair and unbiased news coverage with as much focus on people in need as countries or people that are prospering. Our struggles as Africans are unique and our cultural identities too numerous to tame.
And the countries on this continent deserve so much more than being wiped off the world’s map for your convenience.
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Cover image of Zanzibar in Tanzania. Photo by Humphrey Muleba.