Africa is Not a Country

I’d like to begin this post with a short feature on Sophia’s Ignorant Moments of the Week:

The other day I met a former Princeton in Africa fellow here in Joburg who was one of the few who just ended up staying in Africa after his fellowship ended. Although he went to school in the U.S., he happened to be from Mauritius, so South Africa turned out to be a lot closer to his home anyways.

But upon learning that he was a Mauritian, I remarked,
“Oh, I thought you were Indian.” (because he looked Indian)

To which he replied,

“Well, I am of Indian descent, but just like Indian people in the U.S. who are still Americans, I am Mauritian. My family has been here for 12 generations now.”

In my head, I just gave myself an eye roll and slap on the forehead for my unbelievably ignorant sounding comment – mainly because, to imply that someone who doesn’t look like they come from a certain place must not be originally from that place is completely contradictory to the basis of what makes up America. To be American is to be Indian, Mexican, African, European, etc etc… everyone is equally American despite the fact that their parents or grandparents or great great great whoever is from some other place. So why would I assume, even for a second, that someone who looks Indian couldn’t identify first with being Mauritian (and, it turns out, a pretty big majority in Mauritius are actually of Indian descent).

But also, this recognition of my own terrible close-minded view of the world followed a series of other realizations about my unfortunate stereotypical American behavior of stereotyping other places in the world.  So many inner eye rolls and head shakes have occurred over the past few weeks as I’ve noted the hypocrisy of my disdain for simplified representations of Africa as a poverty-stricken, exotic, backward and traditional place in the world and my simultaneous tendency to describe South Africa as “not really that different from the U.S. compared to a lot of other African countries” – basically, robbing South Africa of its African identity just as I had done to the Indian Mauritian.

In all my disapproval of the much too common Africa-is-a-country mindset you find in much of the Western world, I have all this time been portraying this exact mentality when given the perfect opportunity to challenge it. It’s funny because, I’ve even come across this attitude from a lot of South Africans themselves. From “South Africa is not really Africa” to “we’re a lot more developed here,” the underlying message is always one of South Africa’s uniqueness in the African context; that somehow, by having big fancy malls, streets devoid of roaming chickens, a lack of informal produce stands on every corner, and most people being able to speak English, it is not your “typical” African country.

And yet, South Africa is the perfect example of what Africa is, but which a lot still fail to grasp; and that is:

A giant continent.

Seriously, just take a moment to think about its geographical size. Now think about how there could possibly be one homogeneous culture/lifestyle/language/political situation/economic circumstances across one entire continent. Of course, you are likely to find similarities across the countries of one continent, but in the end, they each have their own distinct identity while still being part of one larger identity. In the case of South Africa, I think it is so telling how a lot of Americans, including myself, try to define it in terms that distance it from its African identity –revealing of the underlying stereotype that Africa is one single, homogeneous place defined by its foreignness [to American culture] and even more so by its status as “underdeveloped”; such that anything that deviates from this norm must make it less African (think about countries like Egypt or Morocco, even, and how they often seem pushed into other categories like the Middle-East or Arab states, when they are just as much a part of Africa as Ethiopia or Ghana or Tanzania). So if there’s one teaching opportunity I’d like to take advantage of with my year in South Africa and the descriptions I convey to people back home or anywhere else, is that Africa is a vastly diverse continent fully of vastly diverse people; and that even within the different countries themselves, there is so much diversity (economic, racial, cultural, and so on) and every single one of them is still equally African.

You might be wondering why I feel the need to blab on and on about all of this diversity within the African continent. Well, one of the primary relationships between the West and Africa still seems to be that of providing aid for development. And while this is necessary and often facilitated through positive intentions, it also often ends up doing more harm than good. And much of this is due to the Africa-is-a-country representations and stereotypes I just thoroughly referred to. How can you ever hope to institute sustainable, long-lasting change in a country if the assistance you provide is based on assumptions that it is just a place full of underprivileged, helpless people in need? With the realization of Africa’s diversity as a continent comes the realization that every place has its own challenges, but also its own assets and unique potential for growth.

And, with that, I think it relevant to share this lovely video and critique of the video that I happened across the other day and just so happens to be about a PSA made by the organization I now work for:

I think this is a wonderful summary of the almost unavoidable hypocrisy I feel about some of the messages we send out to the world to encourage donations towards “feeding the hungry”. Unavoidable because, while I totally agree with everything this person has written and all the absurdity in Christina Aguilera’s helping starving children in war-torn Rwandan by serving meals to them, I also have had a chance to look at this from another perspective (p.s. still trying to awkwardly avoid mentioning the name of my organization in this blog so I don’t have to worry about accidentally saying anything I shouldn’t).  The continuation of such generalizing, demeaning representations of Africa in PSAs and most charity ads you find these days is not so much an issue of the organizations themselves as it is of the larger attitudes towards charities and foreign aid. That is, making videos about how complex and unique the people in Africa are and how there is so much potential for economic growth in the country through the kind of assistance that provides people with opportunities rather than hand-outs is not going to generate much money from the big donors, government agencies, and sympathetic individual.  Images of starving children and the emergency situation in a country requiring immediate assistance, however, will.

I find it so frustrating that so many aid organizations such as ours do in fact make efforts to move away from the old model of charity that was essentially all about hand-outs. It’s not that we don’t have activities that work to develop communities or provide people with employment or allow farmers greater access to markets as opposed to simply giving people food (a temporary fix to the problem), it’s that the big donors, and especially governments, just aren’t as interested in funding long-term sustainable projects when they can provide starving people with food and in that way, quickly address a problem and promote the visible short-term outcomes of their assistance to the rest of the world; in the same way that the majority of people who decide to make donations to these organizations are often moved to do so by the simplified, drastic portrayals of starving people and the difference that a few dollars can make in their lives rather than by a deeper understanding of the alternative kinds of support that can be given to empower them to help themselves.

It’s not just a matter of the representations circulated by the humanitarian world. It’s a matter of shifting our entire mindset towards development aid on a global scale and the priority we give to it. Inequality is not going to go away anytime soon, and humanitarian assistance still does play a huge role in saving millions of lives. But until people stop looking at Africa as a place of charity and start seeking ways to strengthen governments’ abilities to serve their own people and people’s ability to support themselves, then life-saving assistance will continue to be a necessity, and the need to fund such assistance will continue to require organizations to promote the starving-African-child representation to simply obtain the needed funding for their work.

Aaaannddddd, to end on a positive note after a rather long rant about challenges in the world, I can at least say that I am finally feeling more confident at work and successfully did two things this week that I rather dislike:
1. Talking on the phone (…yeah, I know I don’t deserve to call myself an adult)
2. Giving a presentation to 1,500 high school students

(The first was to call up a bunch of people from the media to confirm their attendance at one of our media briefings; you’d be surprised at how hard it is to get ahold of some people. The second was to do some UN youth outreach and basically teach them about the UN’s mission/encourage them to get involved. I gave some background info, but luckily we brought along a lovely South African actress named Hlubi who works as one of our celebrity ambassadors against hunger and was able to get them way more pumped up and inspired to save the world and stay in school than did my little UN history lesson)


me and the gorgeous Hlubi Mboya

me looking really awkward while telling kids about the UN

me looking really awkward while telling kids about the UN


Youth Can Move the World (but like, actually)

Two weeks ago I spent three inspiring, exhausting, chilly Spring days in dust-filled tents cozily squeezed in beside  over 1,000 other youth between the ages of 15 and 30 who came from all over parts of South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Seychelles for no other purpose than to discuss how to make the world a better place. Daunted by how to even describe the full power of such an event in a blog post afterwards (and further postponed by getting sick after the conference and having little desire to do anything but sit in my bed and watch Friends for a week), I’ve finally decided to at least attempt to convey a tiny glimpse into the amazingness that was the Johannesburg Baha’i Youth Conference. To keep it simple, I’ve decided to present the reasons for its amazingness in list form:

Reason #1: Unity

This one is probably the single most incredible underlying factor in everything we did at the conference, including the existence of the conference itself. As I think I mentioned in my previous post, this conference was one of 114 youth conferences that have happened/are happening all over the word all for the same exact purpose of figuring out how as youth we can best render service to mankind and learn how to better support each other in our community-building activities. It was a historic event in many ways, as it is the first time the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Baha’is that provides guidance to Baha’i communities globally, has called for such conferences to take place around the world specifically focusing on youth. Likewise, the immensely positive response to the Universal House of Justice, in which tens of thousands of youth, Baha’i and otherwise, have gathered together in their respective parts of the globe reveals the vast scope of the occasion. From big, well-known cities like Chicago and Paris to far-off, less well-known ones like Port Moresby,Papua New Guinea and Antananarivo, Madagascar, it is incredible to fathom that the youth in every single one of these places came together as a result of the same set of guidance from the Universal House of Justice in Israel, inspired by one common vision of service to humanity, all to discuss similar themes and help each other in going on to transform their words into actions. Sitting among the diverse group of youth at the Johannesburg conference, I couldn’t help but feel inspired not only by the energetic group of people around me, but also by the ever-present thought in the back of my mind of the even wider family of youth I knew were joining us in every other corner of the globe.

Reason #2: Diversity

obligatory spontaneous jam sesh

the [stereotypical but necessary] spontaneous jam sesh

I know I just kind of implied this one with the unity stuff, but I don’t just mean diversity in a geographical or cultural sense (although, making new friends from Saudi Arabia, Australia, Italy, South Africa, and Swaziland all in one weekend was pretty awesome), but also in terms of people’s lifestyles and even economic background.  People always talk about the evident segregation that often exists between racial groups whether in the U.S. or here in South Africa, but I feel like an equally common form of segregation that is less often discussed are those based on different economic circumstances. Especially in Joburg, where crime is a huge issue and the most dangerous areas also tend to be the least economically well-off ones, the divide becomes even deeper when people remain confined to their nice, gated communities. The thing I liked about the conference was that some youth had a lot of money, some had barely any, and none of this seemed to matter in any way. It was just another opportunity to learn from people’s experiences and gain a better awareness of the different kinds of struggles people have had to face in their lives.

Reason #3: Hope

This is a big one. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even describe the number of times I’ve had people say to me, “Why bother trying to make the world a better place. No matter how much you try to fix things, in the end, people just suck and nothing will really change. There will always be war. There will always be hatred. You can never have world peace and a unified world. All you can do is make the most of your own life and do what’s best for you.” (okay, this is a compilation of what people have said. No one has said all of this at once, but you get the point.) Not to mention the interesting reaction I often encounter when describing the Baha’i Faith to people and its central purpose of unifying mankind: “Is it a hippy religion?” ….What is it about the prospect of a unified world in the future that is so unimaginable to people? Okay, I mean I guess looking at the current state of things, I could understand people’s pessimism, but I think if people actually took a second to look at the seeds of unity and change that have taken root all over the world, and particularly in the mindsets and actions of today’s youth, it would be impossible to ignore the vast potential there. That is why an event like this conference is so important. I wish that every single person with an ounce of pessimism in their hearts and vision of doubt about the good in the world in their minds could have witnessed this incredible gathering of youth. I wish they could have seen all of the high-school aged youth, even the ones in their beanies and skinny jeans and ‘yeah, I’m cool cuz I rap and wear sunglasses at night’-facades (I particularly enjoyed the rapper kid who came up to me to complement me on my American accent and inquire into how he can get one), voluntarily spending their weekend studying passages about service and making plans to teach children and start groups for younger youth in their communities. These same youth, who much of our society still glances at and brushes off as materialistic, apathetic, and self-centered beings, are capable of initiating so much change in the world when simply given a bit of direction and encouragement.

And I wish everyone could have witnessed those beautiful moments in the tents when, filled to capacity with youth of all ages and colors, they would fill with the sound of a thousand voices in any number of accents proclaiming their joy for life through a Zulu or Portuguese or English song about the oneness of mankind against the backdrop of pounding drums and clapping hands, accompanied by swaying hips and a contagious energy that manifested itself in vibrant dancing.  If anyone with doubts about the possibility of a future global civilization characterized by love and unity felt the spirit in those tents at such moments and gazed upon the sea of youthful faces  expressing such joy, I guarantee, at least for that moment, that their doubts would be dispelled. And, in their place, a new sentiment would take hold – one powerful enough to inspire them to think beyond their own limitations and feel compelled to join in the efforts towards the creation of such a world civilization: hope.


Reason #4: The Power of Youth

And of course, as a final amazingness reason, I cannot fail to mention the one that was kind of the central theme of the entire conference: youth. So many people talk about how important “the youth” are and how they are “our future” and how it is so important to educate them and guide them on the right path and all that other good stuff, which is all completely good and true, but how often does society actually look to the youth themselves for guidance? (and I apologize for my use of the word ‘society’ btw…I realize it’s an awful vague and cliché term that doesn’t really mean anything in itself but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Like really, think of all the obnoxious jokes that go around about the “millennials” for instance and how lazy and privileged they are. I know that most people don’t actually subscribe to such ridiculous generalizations that attempt to characterize and pass judgement on an entire generation of people, but nonetheless, such stereotypes about today’s youth still seem to influence a lot of the way we’re treated (in school, in the workplace, in general). One thing that is so inspiring to me as a Baha’i is the absolutely vital and central role that youth play in the progress of the Faith, and really, in the progress of mankind. One of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, the Báb (who foretold the coming of the founder, Baha’u’llah) was in fact only twenty five when He delivered his message to the world. Countless other youth became some of the first Baha’is and even sacrificed their lives alongside the Báb all to spread His teachings. They were the ones who enabled the Baha’i Faith to become the amazing and ever-growing world religion that it is today, and it is their example of courage and certitude and sacrifice that lends inspiration to the role of youth in the Faith today.

a game that symbolized something about mutual support

a game that symbolized something about mutual support

A lot of the conference was spent talking about the fact that as youth, we have a special capacity to serve that we may not have at other points in life: we’re at a period where we aren’t necessarily tied down by family or work obligations and don’t have a specific path ahead of us, which in many ways gives us a lot of freedom to devote our thoughts and time towards serving mankind. Another point of discussion, though, was the caution we must take in not having a fragmented approach to life in which we create false choices between things like serving and studying or serving and working — rather, by viewing everything we do in life as an opportunity to provide service to someone, all of our actions naturally become part of our overall efforts towards building a better world. We also have great potential to influence younger youth simply by nature of being older youth. As such, it is imperative that we take hold of this opportunity to work with junior youth and children in our communities to prepare them for lives of service and assist them in their moral and spiritual development.

So, not to go on and on about everything we discussed at the conference, but basically, youth are powerful. Not just powerful in the sense that we can do good things in the world, but powerful in the sense that we are absolutely vital to its transformation. In a sense, it is absolutely terrifying how much power we have — for it implies a huge responsibility and sense of urgency to take action and make the most of this fleeting period of our lives. But, bearing in mind the collective action and unified vision that such a task requires, and realizing the mutual support that comes from the global community of youth working towards the same goals, it is mostly just inspiring.