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


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