It’s time to stop thinking Africa is a country
And other strange reactions or bizarre misconceptions about Africa
“We’re going to close by singing the African National Anthem.”
These were the words of a presenter at the end of a commentary on Africa that a friend sent to me. The African Anthem? Wait. I did not know that the CONTINENT Africa had an anthem; maybe so did Europe and North America too?
For some reason, people tend to view the continent that has 54 different countries as one country with people who speak one language and have one anthem (It was South Africa’s anthem btw). Yet, this is only one of the problems with the perception of the continent and if you ask anyone who considers himself or herself of African descent, they have probably encountered bizarre misconceptions about the continent as well. For this reason, I decided to ask a couple of Cornell students to talk about some of the bizarre misconceptions they have heard concerning Africa.
Julia Dormon, 2018
One of the most ridiculous things I have heard about Africa is that it is a remote desert land with no water. The Cornell professor who said this also seems to believe that there are no human beings on the continent. On the first day of class this professor made a poll to find out where everybody is from, so I took out my I-clicker ready to rep the motherland. I glanced through the options: Europe, North America, South America, Asia-Pacific, Middle East… there was even Antarctica, OK? But there was no Africa. I was just in so much shock, and to this day I am still wondering whether I even exist.
Neno Belsoi, 2019
Kenyan. Hometown: Baltimore
“Africans have lions as pets…African food stinks”…Sigh. Tourists do interact with the wildlife and last I checked, the “odor” coming from our food would be the smell of delicious spices so clearly absent from other cuisines. Being a first-gen American is frustrating. Growing up, I hated school and substitute teachers. The awkward moments of pause before s/he attempted to read my name from the attendance was always followed by snickers and harsh words from my classmates. Comments like “African booty-scratcher,” followed by unintelligible utterances in deep accents that were probably meant to offend me, just left me feeling pity for the my age mates who were so puerile in their ignorance. I can’t say I have an exact explanation for where these stereotypes come from, but there’s no doubt that post-colonialism and cultural genocide have massive hands in it.
Evodie Ganjwa, 2018
“Africa is a country.” I do not speak African because that is not a language. Africa is not a country. I can’t tell you what Africa is like because my country, the DRC, cannot encapsulate the entirety of Africa. It’s outrageous and disparaging to condense all the countries of Africa, their people, their languages and culture into one by ignoring the richness of each country’s distinctiveness. I proudly boast in my African identity, but I do it with the understanding and acknowledgment of the complexities of Africa as a whole.”
Patricia Muumba, 2018
I think the hardest thing for me to comprehend is why I am always asked, “How come you speak very fluent English?” Last time I checked, the British colonized Uganda. So that meant despite our independence, we assimilated some things such as the education system and the main language of communication. I am very proud of the fact that I am fluent in English and fluent in my two mother tongues. I am trilingual and I am very proud of that.
Ida Adjivon, 2017
A few days after I started middle school in the United States, I was asked a very interesting question- “Do you have pet lions?” I was very puzzled as I have actually never been face to face with a lion. I tried to explain to my new friend that lions are not present in my country, Togo. Even if they were, they would be wildlife. Since then, I have heard multiple accounts about the western world’s view of the African continent. Some of these impressions are very comical and often incredibly absurd. Shocking enough, these questions persisted after middle school, throughout high school, and I am still faced with individuals with this mindset in my Ivy League institution.
I am fully aware that the media has an incredible amount of power in the portrayal of the African continent, and I understand that their bias influences those to whom they market. Nevertheless, I also believe that we as individuals are at fault for not doing more to educate ourselves on things that are foreign. We tend to simply accept whatever we receive at face value, and this perpetuates a cycle of ignorance. I would love to learn about other cultures and I would love to teach others about the many cultures that make up my continent. In an attempt to challenge the western view of the African Continent, I have founded an organization named I, AFRICA™. We use a series of photographs and videos of individuals of African descent to tell a new story of the African continent.
Africa has poverty, but we also have incredible wealth; some people live in huts, but many more people live in western-styled buildings. Yes, we do have electricity, cellular telephones, highways, and amazing art. There is so much more to the continent than the media shows, and we at I, AFRICA™ would love the opportunity to tell you. It is time to review the African history and retell a different African story, one that is more true to and worthy of her beauty.
The list is endless with these misconceptions. We cannot claim to be students and leaders in a prestigious institution such as Cornell and still make offhanded comments about peoples’ hometowns. It is true that poverty is still prevalent in a lot of countries around the world (not just in African countries). However, I am imploring educated people to be more open-minded in viewing the whole picture and not just half of it.
My friend should not see a picture of me on Facebook in a fancy restaurant with my friends and say, “Was this actually in Ghana?” (This happened). If you do not know, ask. It is much more logical to ask about the spread and impact of Ebola in some countries in West Africa than to say in public that, Ebola is a problem in “Africa” because we don’t have soap (This actually happened). To learn that, wildlife is a great source of revenue through tourism for East African countries but West Africa does not possess wildlife. For the Africans and other people of various descents, use every opportunity to teach your friends about your continent and learn about theirs. Students such as Ida Adjivon have started projects such as I, AFRICA™ to increase education and awareness of their continent. Cornell is infused with a plethora of cultures and it would be a shame for one to leave this university with the same misconceptions he or she came in with.